Walla Walla group hopes to add meat to food banks

The local Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry provides game meat to those in need.

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WALLA WALLA - In a popular culture of Weight Watchers and South Beach diets, Matt and Jennifer Stephens are hoping to gain pounds. Luckily, these pounds are heart-healthy - low in saturated fat and high in cholesterol-reducing polyunsaturated fats.

Matt and Jennifer Stephens run the Blue Mountain chapter of Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, a national organization that provides game meat to those in need. Hunters donate game to partnering USDA-approved butcher shops, where the meat is processed and packaged. FHFH distributes the game meat to the hungry through food banks and local feeding programs.

"If a hunter goes out and they like to hunt but they don't like the venison, we come take care of it," said program coordinator Matt Stephens.

Hunters can donate excess meat they do not need. Crystal Deschaines donated her buck to FHFH last fall.

"The one deer that was donated gave us 40 pounds of ground venison," said Jennifer Stephens.

Blue Mountain FHFH donated the 40 one-pound packages of ground venison to the Christian Aid Center.

"They were tickled," said Jennifer Stephens. "They were very grateful. Forty pounds of ground meat would make several meals."

Jennifer Stephens clarified that hunters do not need to donate an entire kill.

"They can donate part of a deer and elk. Just 10 or 20 pounds of it, that's a generous donation to us," she said. "They don't need to pay for any of that processing."

Farmers can help by donating steers and pigs or by allowing hunters on their lands for damage-control hunts. Deer management permits, awarded when abundant game populations cause significant harm to crops, allow farmers to harvest additional deer during and outside of the normal hunting season.

"That helps farmers get critters from destroying their crops," said Jennifer Stephens.

Wild game meat, such as venison and elk, has long been applauded as a healthy alternative to domestic grain-fed beef or pork. Deer and elk, hunted in accordance with Fish and Wildlife regulations, are sustainable food sources - "renewable God-given resources," according to Rick Wilson, founder of FHFH.

Matt Stephens explained how Blue Mountain FHFH came to be: "I was out hunting one day and thinking back to when I was a kid. If we had excess (meat), we gave it to the neighbors. I was thinking, ‘How the heck can I do something like that?' I (returned home and) let my bird dog in, turned on the hunting channel, and saw FHFH on the TV. I wrote down the e-mail address and, boom, we became coordinators."

The application process wasn't immediate. Matt Stephens had to pass a background check, find a health-inspected and insured butcher shop and connect with local food banks and feeding centers.

By spring of 2009, Blue Mountain FHFH was ready to "invite hunters to return to their heritage as ‘food providers' in the modern world," in accordance with the national FHFH mission.

"It's just another way to bring people to know God through hunting," said Matt Stephens. "And providing food to people is a really good way to do it."

With the elk hunt season on the horizon, Matt and Jennifer Stephens hope successful hunters may donate meat for their cause. Monetary donations cover the costs of processing and packaging meat. Processing a deer costs around $50. The Stephenses encourage volunteers to spread the word and to help with future fundraising events.

"If (someone's) gotten their deer, and (with) elk season about to start, give us a call and we'll come," said Matt Stephens.

"One pound feeds four people, five pounds feeds 20 people," said Jennifer Stephens.

Katrina Barlow can be reached at katrinabarlow@wwub.com.

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