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In some provinces, deer, bear and moose meat are all fair game for food donations, giving hungry people more access to protein – and for hunters and communities culling wildlife, there are side benefits

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Travis MacLeod carries his bow through the woods in Upper Musquodoboit, N.S., while hunting white-tailed deer this past December. He donates part of his hunting catch to local food banks.Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

When Travis MacLeod shot a bear last year, he could have filled his freezer with enough of its dark, rich meat to last his family for many months.

Instead, Mr. MacLeod, a bow hunting safety instructor for the province of Nova Scotia, took the animal to his local butcher and told him to give half of it to people in need – something hundreds of hunters in his province do every year, donating freshly killed wild game to local food banks through a program called Hunters Helping the Hungry.

Operated by food-security charity Feed Nova Scotia in partnership with the provincial government and the Nova Scotia Federation of Anglers and Hunters, the program has supplied almost 13,000 kilograms of wild meat to food banks over the past 15 years – enough for about 128,980 servings of protein.

But while such programs are common in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, they are still prohibited in provinces such as Ontario, where food banks are not allowed to accept donations of deer, moose, bear or other wild meat. That’s something hunting groups and Food Banks Canada say ought to change.

“The generosity of hunters in these provinces in providing high-quality protein to food banks to help our neighbours in need is always greatly appreciated,” said Kirstin Beardsley, the chief of network services at Food Banks Canada.

“Any efforts that increase food banks’ ability to access more healthy food to serve their communities are always welcome. As long as these programs are regulated and have clear rules and guidelines that prioritize the safety of food-bank clients, Food Banks Canada is in support of their expansion.”

Food banks in Nova Scotia and elsewhere say wild game is becoming an increasingly important source of protein as the price of store-bought meat soars.

They point out that the average cost of most cuts of beef in Canada has risen more than 20 per cent in the past year, the highest inflation since the mid-1990s.

For Mr. MacLeod, sharing the meat he harvests comes naturally. It’s something that was instilled in him as a boy learning to hunt with his father in rural New Brunswick.

“We always believed in sharing the harvest. Everything was shared when I was a kid – if you got a moose or a deer or a bear. If a neighbour needed some meat and couldn’t afford it, you gave them some,” he said.

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Mr. MacLeod sits high in a tree, waiting for game. He is a bow hunting safety instructor who learned hunting from his father in rural New Brunswick.

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Bows hang beside some artwork of deer at a hunting camp in Upper Musquodoboit. Nova Scotians can take animals to about a dozen licensed butcher shops participating in Hunters Helping the Hungry.

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One of the busiest participating shops is Cavicchi's Meats in Upper Tantallon, N.S., where butchers Jonathan Chiasson and Gerry Zwicker carry a skinned deer for processing.

In Nova Scotia, hunters can bring their animals to one of about a dozen participating licensed butcher shops, where the meat is processed and set aside for Feed Nova Scotia’s central distribution centre.

Hunters pay the cost of butchering, which can be as much as $150 for a deer, and decide how much of the animal they want to donate. They’re then entered into a draw for a rifle.

“It’s a perfect system, as far as I can see it,” said Mr. MacLeod, who has also donated deer and moose meat in the past. “There’s only so much wild game my wife and I can eat anyway. That’s a lot of meat and a lot of freezer space.”

Grant Cavicchi, owner of Cavicchi Meats in Upper Tantallon, N.S., runs one of the busiest participating shops in the province.

A few years ago, his shop processed more than 400 kilograms of boneless, lean wild game for the province’s food banks, most of it ground into hamburger, which can be easily cooked.

“We send a lot of good stuff out the door, and I know it fills a lot of bellies,” Mr. Cavicchi said. “When I first heard about the program, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s brilliant.’ A lot of folks don’t have the resources to just go into the grocery store and buy good protein.”

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Grant Cavicchi, middle, laughs while processing deer meat with employees Jonathan Chiasson, left, and Nick Gushue.

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Colin Jewell holds a pound of deer from Cavicchi Meats at the Feed Nova Scotia warehouse, where it was destined for a food bank in Dartmouth.

Some communities are using the program as they target chronic deer overpopulation problems, an issue in many parts of Eastern Canada owing to increasingly mild winters and a lack of predators such as wolves.

In Truro, N.S., town officials are planning a crossbow-only deer cull in early 2022. The meat will go to food banks through Hunters Helping the Hungry; the hides to neighbouring Millbrook First Nation.

“We know food-security issues are growing, and more and more people are having issues accessing healthy protein,” said Alison Grant, the manager of economic development with the Town of Truro. “That’s why donating the meat is a key piece of this program. We see it as critical.”

But deer culls, even those that donate meat to food banks, can be contentious. When Longueuil, Que., announced its plan last year to reduce its deer population and donate the meat to the needy, the mayor received death threats.

Ms. Grant said there are certainly residents who do not want to see any animals killed. But 56 per cent of Truro voters supported the cull within the town limits in a recent plebiscite, and as concerns about collisions with vehicles, property damage and diseases carried by deer have increased, so has support for reducing the population, she said.

“Support is definitely divided in this town – not everyone is on board with the plan,” she said. “But we’re not talking about eradicating the deer population. We just want to get it down to a manageable level and we want to do it as humanely as possible.”

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Packages of deer burger at Cavicchi Meats.

Food banks, meanwhile, say fresh protein continues to be one of the most difficult things to source for their clients, as it’s the least-often donated. Mr. Cavicchi and Mr. MacLeod say provinces could use incentives to encourage more hunters and butchers to help fill that gap, including subsidizing the cost of processing and storing donated meat.

As food prices rise, more provinces are easing restrictions on how wild game can be shared. In 2020, Newfoundland and Labrador changed its regulations to allow moose and caribou to be donated to food banks, as long as the meat is processed at a government-licensed butcher shop or abattoir.

“I understand the importance of food safety and food quality. And I understand how in the past these regulations could clash with backyard butchering,” said Jessica Proulx, a chef and board member of the Nova Scotia Federation of Anglers and Hunters.

“But this is providing an ethical, safe, sustainable source of meat for families who can actually use it. It just makes a lot of sense.”

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