Donors and volunteers with Clean Out Your Freezer Day help get protein into the kitchens of those in need. Photos courtesy Hunters for the Hungry

Giving Back: Hunters for the Hungry

The last couple of years have forced us to accept a bit less than we’re used to: less socializing indoors, less toilet paper on the shelves, less chicken or beef in grocery aisles and restaurants. But in the South’s temperate winters and waterside summers, a few favorite pastimes remained—namely, the hunting and fishing that require no masks or social distancing. Not only have sportsmen been trekking to rivers and woods as much as ever before, but their hobby puts them in a unique position to resupply the most expensive item on most Louisianans’ supper tables: protein. In Baton Rouge, that all-natural excess falls into the hands of Hunters for the Hungry (H4H), a nonprofit that has dedicated itself to collecting and distributing donated fish and game since 1994.

It all began when co-founder and board chairman Judy Campbell married her late husband Richard in 1969, sharing his love for nature and raising their children in Baton Rouge where the call of the wild was never too far away. Decades later, the pair discovered an article showcasing another state’s nonprofit dedicated to donating game protein, and a light bulb went off.

“Louisiana is the Sportsman’s Paradise, right?” Campbell recalls thinking. “We have so much wild game and fishing, as well as millions of people with hunting and fishing licenses. With so much fresh protein, and so many people willing to share it—we figured that if it worked in another state, it could surely work in ours.”

But they couldn’t do it alone. In the early days, the Campbells partnered with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to serve donated meat in the society’s local dining hall, hanging deer in the St. Vincent de Paul freezer where Catholic High students with hunting backgrounds would volunteer to clean and process the meat. Soon afterward, however, the influx of donated deer became too much to handle, and the Campbells linked up with like-minded friends, the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, and various regional meat processors to turn their grassroots effort into a statewide nonprofit that collected more than 50,000 pounds of donated protein from Louisiana hunters and wranglers during its 2020-2021 fiscal year.

“This is such a tight-knit group,” says board president Chip Songy, who has known the Campbells since before they were married. “We started out as such a small organization, and now we have board members all over the state: Monroe, Shreveport, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, St. Francisville, the Natchez area, the Northshore, Lake Charles and Lafayette.”

In Louisiana, even politicians get in on the hunt, with Governor John Bel Edwards teaming up with H4H before the 2021 holidays to donate 150 pounds of protein to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Baton Rouge.

The organization still works closely with St. Vincent de Paul, along with the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank and its affiliates in north Louisiana, plus the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans. As for how H4H moves all that protein from sportsmen to the bowls of Louisianans in need, that stems largely from the organization’s Freshly Harvested Game and Fish Programs, which ally with more than 50 meat processors throughout the state—as well as fish processors at regional marinas—to prepare donated protein before it’s distributed by a food bank.

“The processing is completely free to hunters,” says executive director Julie Grunewald. “If it’s a deer, for example, they just bring it to one of our partner processors, where the meat will typically be ground. Then the processors call me and tell me when they’re ready for the food bank to come and pick it up. The hunters are also allowed to keep the backstrap—usually the best cut of the deer—as a thank-you for participating in our program.”

Although the organization collects a variety of game meat and fish year round, its most lucrative donation drive arrives each September with “Clean Out Your Freezer Day,” where hunters are encouraged to donate their excess frozen meat to one of more than 30 drop-off points across the state. Anyone who misses out on the particular day can still contact their local food bank to schedule a drop-off, and monetary donations can be given at any time or when purchasing a hunting license online. In 2021, even Governor John Bel Edwards joined in on the process, donating more than 150 pounds of protein and thereby contributing to the 200,000 meals provided by H4H last year.

For Songy, his service with H4H remains one of the most rewarding of his career, in part because of the hands-on nature of each donation—not to mention the positive impact it has on children like Grunewald’s daughter, Lucy, who at 6 years old reeled in a redfish at a Grand Isle fishing tournament and immediately declared that she wanted to donate it to H4H.

“We don’t have a big budget, but we have a big impact on the state,” says Songy. “We’ve been very blessed with a community that has a real passion for this, and that feeds our passion to continue.”