“We’re always on the lookout for meat,” says Laura Rhea, president of the Arkansas Rice Depot, a food bank serving 300 church pantries across the state. She says she can usually get canned goods, grains, and bread. She can solicit cheese, produce, and sometimes a little chicken from a processor, especially around the holidays. “But meat is like gold to food banks. We can’t ever get enough. And venison is just wonderful meat, lean and healthy. We put it in soups, stews, and chili. I’m sure that if more hunters knew just how much difference the gift of a single deer makes, we’d have a lot more venison showing up at our door.”
Arkansas, like the rest of the country, has been experiencing significantly more hunger in the past year, mostly due to rising unemployment and the uncertain economy. Rhea (pronounced “Ray”) says that she’s seeing more and more people who are doing everything right-working hard and playing by the rules and trying to pay their bills-who just can’t make ends meet.
There was a time not long ago when just about anybody in Arkansas who worked a full-time job could get by, Rhea says. They might not be comfortable, but most months they’d be able to feed and clothe their kids, make their rent, and hold on to a clunker car. That’s not the case anymore. The businesses they’re working for can no longer afford to offer health insurance. If they do, many workers can’t meet the copayment. “So you have something new: a whole class of young families whose food budget for the month gets wiped out if their baby gets pinkeye or strep throat. And you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking that 20 years ago that would have been me.”
She tells me that there are 46,000 children in the state who are being raised in households headed by a grandparent, most often a grandmother who didn’t volunteer for the job. But the mothers are sometimes children themselves, barely into their teens. So the grandmothers or great-grandmothers take them in. These women tend to be on fixed incomes, so they are forced to play a cruel game every month: The options are food, rent, or medication; pick any two.
Rhea tells me about elderly couples in which the man used to hunt but is now too feeble to get around-and how the gift of wild meat brings back memories of a time when they were younger and he would drag home a deer that would feed them for the entire winter. She tells me how her organization discovered more than 15,000 children last year who weren’t getting enough to eat to perform adequately in school. And that was in just a fraction of the state’s schools, which means those 15,000 kids are just the tip of the iceberg. She tells me that school nurses in Arkansas have learned that when a child asks to leave class because of a stomachache, it pays to ask that child if she has eaten in the past 24 hours. Because increasingly, a child who complains of an upset stomach is actually talking about an empty one. Rhea knows a primary-school teacher who has taught in Arkansas for 30 years who no longer introduces new material on Mondays until after the school-provided lunch, because a child who hasn’t eaten all weekend is incapable of concentrating. Recent research indicates that even mild undernutrition during critical periods in a child’s life affects brain development and stunts physical growth. “My experience with hunters in our state is that they’re good-hearted people,” Rhea says. “It’s just that nobody has ever told them how much of a difference they can make by donating one deer. To have the joy of the hunt and then have the joy of filling somebody’s stomach, to me that’s got to be a satisfying hunt. I know life’s not fair. But it ought to be. For children, anyway.”