EATONTON — On a crisp late October morning, Drew Copeland and a team of helpers hung a hundred-pound buck from the ceiling of his shed and sliced open its torso. A pile of organs and blood spilled onto the cement floor.
"We wash and clean a lot," he said with a laugh.
Copeland's not afraid of grime and guts. Since he opened The Meat Shed in Eatonton five years ago, he's butchered thousands of deer and hogs. Copeland often chops up 40 deer in a day during rifle season.
Copeland likes to keep his workplace pristine, but with the constant stream of fresh meat flowing in and out of coolers and grinders, it's hard to keep up.
"This room won't look like this in a little while. It'll be ugly in here in a little bit," he said as he butchered a mound of deer meat at a cutting table. "But, by the time we get finished this afternoon, there'll be pieces of meat on the floor and, you know, just stuff everywhere, and then every morning it starts back over just like this."
Deer season is a hectic time for The Meat Shed, which processed 1,600 deer last year. But it's not just the promise of profits that keeps Copeland up to his elbows in venison from October through January.
The Meat Shed processes an extra 750 to 1,000 pounds of deer meat each year to donate to Georgia Hunters for the Hungry, an initiative of the Georgia Wildlife Federation that contributes free venison to food pantries and soup kitchens across the state.
"I've been blessed with a whole lot over here," Copeland said. "So it's nice to do a little bit for somebody else too."
The struggle to feed Georgia's hungry
Since 1993, hunters have provided over 1.5 million meals to Georgians in need.
"You've got these parents calling, saying, 'I just need to feed my family. My family needs protein,'" said Sam Stowe, sportsmen program manager for the Georgia Wildlife Federation. "So, you know, that's what kind of drives me to continue the program. Because I do see the need out there."
One in seven Georgians struggles with hunger, according to Feeding America. More than 500,000 of them are children.
Food banks supply Georgia's 1.6 million hungry residents with canned goods, dried grains and other pantry staples, but they rarely offer high-protein options, like meat.
Georgia Hunters for the Hungry aims to bridge that gap.
Venison is an ideal option to nourish the food insecure, because it's high in protein and low in fat, Stowe said.
"We have the food banks calling us wanting more, wanting more every year," he said.
Stowe coordinates with about 20 meat processors throughout the state who accept donations on behalf of the organization. He's spent years recruiting more hunters and meat processors to help to fill Georgia's ever-growing need for protein.
Resources are limited, though.
The Georgia Wildlife Federation reimburses processors $1.50 for each pound of meat they butcher. Once the meat is ground up and packaged, it's delivered to the Georgia Food Bank Association, which distributes the venison to communities across the state.
Funding is the program's greatest challenge, Stowe said. The nonprofit organization runs on individual donations and grants from the Walmart Foundation, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and a handful of other funders.
But when the economy slumps, financing can be hard to find.
The program faltered for several years during the Great Recession, when donations fell short. Years later, Stowe still struggles each year to keep the organization afloat.
"There's only so many dollars in the coffer that you're able to allot that dollar-and-a-half a pound," Stowe said, adding, "That's my problem. We're not having more processors, because we run out of money to pay the guys with."
Stowe's committed to growing the program, though. Eventually, he hopes to partner with processors in all 159 counties.
The organization benefits both the hungry and the hunters, Stowe said.
"It's just a way that hunters can really feel good about their hunting and the fact that they are helping these families," he said.
Adam Schiavone donates at least a deer or two each season. Most of his family and friends do, too.
"It's just a good way to help give back to the community doing something that we love to do," said Schiavone, wildlife technician and volunteer coordinator for the Georgia Wildlife Foundation.
Schiavone started hunting when he was seven or eight years old, and he cherishes the quiet hours he spends in the woods, waiting for prey to pass by.
"I just enjoy getting out, watching the sunrise, listening to animals come out or wake up," Schiavone said. "I've seen a lot of unique things that most people don't get to see."
The fresh meat is just an added bonus, Schiavone said. He fills his freezer with venison every year.
Once Schiavone's shelves are stocked, he gives the rest to others in need.
"We're always going to have the problem where people need food," Schiavone said. "Protein's one of the hardest things for the food banks and soup shelters to get. And it's just an easy way for hunters to help solve that problem."
'It's what we're called to do'
Copeland knows the impact that donated meat can have. Much of the venison donated to The Meat Shed goes to Cafe Central, a free hot meal served each Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Freedom Church in Milledgeville.
Copeland is a regular volunteer at his congregation's soup kitchen, and he gives as much meat as he can, even when he exceeds his 750-pound limit for reimbursement.
It costs Copeland $25 to $30 out of pocket to process each donated deer. He doesn't mind eating the extra expenses, though.
"It doesn't bother me what I get paid for," Copeland said. "I like to do the program."
Seeing those in need eating the meat he's donated is payoff enough for Copeland.
"We can dump money all over the place and, you know, we can hand money to a guy on the street, but I don't know if he's actually going to eat with that money," Copeland said. "But, I know if I'm putting food somewhere that it's actually getting in somebody's belly."
Donations from The Meat Shed lasted Cafe Central through the whole winter last year, said Executive Chef Jim Humphries. Humphries used the 400 pounds of ground meat in soups, chilis and hamburger patties mixed with beef.
"It helps us save money, because that's free protein to us that we don't have to pay for," Humphries said. "So we can use money in other areas to buy more food, whether it's to give out in our canned goods or actually for cooking purposes."
Humphries was nervous to incorporate venison into his menus at first, fearing his visitors wouldn't like the unfamiliar taste. But when he mixes it in with beef, no one really seems to notice. They're just glad they have something filling and warm to eat.
"Being able to provide a free hot meal once a week is vital," Humphries said. "And then at the same time, and in all honesty from my personal beliefs, it's what we're called to do, is to turn around and serve others who are less fortunate in the community and need help."
Information from: The Telegraph, http://www.macontelegraph.com