Jason T. Hall is at the helm of an innovative state program that allows hunters to contribute game to anti-hunger programs. As the director of Maine's Emergency Food Assistance Program, Commodities Supplemental Food Program, and Hunters for the Hungry, Hall has a lot of experience fighting food insecurity.

We recently spoke with Jason about the Hunters for the Hungry (H4H) program.

What is (H4H)?

H4H is a means for hunters to assist in tackling food insecurity in Maine. Hunters can pursue their passion and have an option to donate their kill, or a portion, to the program. H4H will match them up with a processor close to the hunter’s location and not only coordinate the meat getting to a pantry, kitchen or shelter, but it will pay for the processing.

H4H also recognizes that there are many with dietary or medical needs who rely on the lean, high protein meat. We assist some of these people based on their doctor’s recommendation. The state does have some funding to cover processing costs, but much of the funding over the last two years has come from private donations and corporate donations.

What was the program’s genesis? Do other states have similar programs? 

In 1996, legislators passed a law approving the donation of wild game to pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. This opened the door for legally possessed deer, moose, or bear to be donated to The Emergency Food Assistance Program and put into the pipeline for the 250-plus, non-profits they deliver USDA foods to. 

Our department, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, works closely with Maine State Troopers, Marine Resources, and especially Inland Fishery and Wildlife to bolster communications and streamline a process to get the lean, high protein product statewide. 

Other states have similar programs, but they tend to be non-profits; there are a few states that have government-run programs, but they still tend to rely on donations to cover costs. Maine is unique in recognizing the value of a program to help its own.

There are discussions about expanding the program to fresh-water fishing. How would that work? 

We are in a state where fishing is a huge industry, but many of the pantries and non-profits see minimal amounts of fish. Many of the donors to H4H are not just hunters but outdoors people, who have a passion for ice fishing as well.  

In 2014, H4H will attempt a pilot project. We will have a small presence at the Crystal Lake Ice Fishing Derby in Gray on Jan. 25th and hope to educate those fishing about H4H while collecting donations and excess fish.  Wayside has partnered with H4H to not only assist with collecting the fish, but to also play a huge role with processing and distributing to programs throughout Cumberland County. 

There are some exciting possibilities in the future if the derby proves to be a success.  Unfortunately H4H would have to concentrate on tournaments and derbies. At this point we would not be able to have a drop site for single fish donations, it just isn’t efficient for a small program, and food safety is a huge factor.

Unfortunately, there are elevated mercury levels found in some freshwater fish in Maine? Will that be an issue for possible H4H fish programs?

This does present some challenges. The Maine Bureau of Health has publications listing “safe eating guidelines” for a dozen rivers and streams in Maine. H4H is aiming at derbies and tournaments hosted at sites not on those bodies of water. 

There have also been talks on donations from saltwater sources. Fish from saltwater tend to have a higher level of iodine good for the thyroid. They also are higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, and as long as the fish caught are not near the mouth of polluted rivers there tends to be a lower mercury, chlordane, and PCB level.

What kind of impact is the program making on fighting hunger? Do you see the program growing?

There is no one source of food for all the pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters in our state. All of them rely on multiple sources of product to provide for their clients. H4H is another supplemental supply of food, but a valuable source of a much-needed protein. Over the last few years we have seen the program grow. We rely on the generosity of hunters annually, and we have seen the poundage almost double in 18 months.

How has the feedback been so far? 

The feedback has been incredible.  We speak with the hunters who get to pursue a passion and help someone less fortunate. Apparently H4H has been a pretty good secret. We run into people every week who don't know that Maine has the program.

We had a presence at the moose lottery in Greenville and were welcomed with open arms by many excited hunters.  We even have people hunting exclusively for the program to help others, which is very heartwarming.  We are doing everything in our power to educate the public on what H4H does and spread the word. We hope each year grows the program tremendously, as it has in 2013.

Where can Maine hunters and fishermen learn more about the program?

On Maine.gov.

Like us on Facebook. Facebook tends to be a little more interactive, and we have received pictures and success stories on recent hunting trips. 

Via phone at 1-888-4DEER-ME.

You have a background tackling food insecurity, (including time working at Good Shepherd), how do you see the H4H fitting into the overall hunger relief effort? Is there a transferrable lesson to be learned from the program?

As much as H4H helps people in need, it is still a very small supplemental food source.  The lesson is . . . every little bit helps. It’s synergy; the interaction of multiple elements in a system to produce an effect greater than the sum of the individual effects. If everyone donates a dollar to Wayside  –  it doesn’t seem like a dollar will go far – but there are 250, 000 people in greater Portland and all those dollars would produce a greater effect.

Your relationship with Wayside precedes (H4H). How have you worked with Wayside in the past? 

I have had the opportunity to work with Wayside for almost 18 years. Through my previous employer I provided food to Wayside when they ran a one-location soup kitchen. It has been amazing to watch Wayside’s transformation into such a force for Cumberland County. It has been wonderful to be a small part of the incredible work being done. 

What are your impressions of the work that Wayside is doing? 

I have watched Wayside grow beyond my imagination. Their roots started in an individual location and as times changed, so did their operations. They brought the food to where the need is, and they collaborated with others to fulfill the mission. It has been a pleasure over the years to watch them morph into a force that helps thousands. I have had the opportunity to work side by side with their very active board members, dedicated staff, and hardworking volunteers over the years and never had so much fun helping others. Just when I think Wayside is doing great work, they up the ante and streamline a process . . . all to help the people they serve. They never cease to amaze me.