Georgia's Sportsmen For The Hungry

Georgia's Sportsmen For The Hungry

Most of us are aware of Hunters For The Hungry -- but have you heard of Fishermen For the Hungry? This South Georgia bass trail is also doing its part to feed the state's needy. (October 2008)

Brian and Flint Davis display their winning catch from a March 2008 FFH tournament at Lake Blackshear.
Photo by Bob Kornegay.

As a rule, it's not always easy to comprehend in a vividly realistic way the presence of hunger and human need. It can prove particularly difficult for those of us in America who've grown up leading lives far removed from the pangs of want and destitution.

For all of those lives, breakfast has been there on the table for us practically every morning upon awakening. We expect to sit down regularly to a hot lunch, either at our own table or a favorite restaurant or fast-food emporium. Dinner is almost always waiting (or at least is available) each evening after we return home from our daily workaday responsibilities. Between meals, we snack, often way too much.

Further emphasizing our love affair with food and its expected availability are recent statistics pointing out that Georgia's present adult obesity rate is more than 25 percent and rising. Yes, from most folks' perspective, hunger is difficult to fathom.

Despite our overall complacency, however, the reality is arguably quite different: Just question Georgia's food-bank administrators and volunteers, or ask the people who staff the soup kitchens and work to provide meals for others through various food charities, churches and humanitarian concerns. They'll tell you that scores of people wake up hungry every morning and, likewise, go to bed hungry every night, our country's reputation as a land of plenty notwithstanding.

Though many citizens continue to turn the proverbial blind eye to this problem, others who truly know the score dedicate their time to combating domestic hunger. And, wouldn't you just know it, despite the negativism their segment of society is often subjected to, hunters and anglers have been in the vanguard when it comes to extending a helping hand.

In Georgia today, two sportsmen-oriented organizations have assumed responsibility for bringing countless nourishing hot meals to people in need each year. Georgia Hunters for the Hungry and Fishermen for the Hungry have since inception (1993 and 1999, respectively) gone above and beyond in their efforts to put food on the tables of those who need it most.

Cordele's Dewey Mitchell is affectionately described by friends and associates as a "naturally charitable" individual; he also happens to be an avid largemouth fisherman and a longtime devotee of the competitive world of tournament angling. Back in 1999, he hit upon the idea of combining his love of bass angling with his penchant for helping the needy. His brainchild soon evolved into FFH, a southwest Georgia regional bass tournament organization that to date has deposited roughly $8.5 million in money and foodstuffs into the coffers of various food banks for local, state and national distribution.

"Hunger and malnutrition in Georgia and all over the country are more prevalent than you might think," Mitchell said. "They're truly a blight on our society. Fishermen for the Hungry's sole purpose is to do all it can to combat them. This is what we're all about, 100 percent."

Others involved agree. "Our organization is entirely centered around providing food for the needy," added Michael "Bobcat" Williams, a teacher at Blakely's Early County High School and former outdoor television host who serves on the FFH board of directors and donates much of his time annually to the group's bass tournament operations. "Every profit dollar generated by our tournaments and all corporate-donated food items go directly to food banks. Our official policy is to take care of our local food bank first, then see that surpluses reach other food banks statewide, regionally, and nationally, on an as-needed basis. Our bass tournament trail is the primary vehicle for generating needed donations and, just as important, raising awareness of the hunger problem and getting our message out."

Lest there be any misunderstanding, Williams, who was motivated to accept his present active role in FFH operations after covering one of the group's tournaments for a television broadcast, is quick to point out that FFH does not use the fish taken during tournament competition as food; the bass are caught and released in typical tournament fashion. It's instead the money generated by events that feeds the needy.

Fishermen for the Hungry was born when Mitchell, an agent for a number of large independent food brokers, began negotiating with his corporate clients in an attempt to get them to donate their surplus and difficult-to-sell food items to various area food banks, charities with which he already had long been affiliated. The companies that initially agreed to this practice soon discovered it to be good for public relations, good for tax purposes, and simply a good and decent thing to do in general. Most came to consider it a no-lose proposition.

"The fishing tournaments began shortly afterward, and have expended from just one event in the beginning to the annual 10-tournament series we run today," Williams noted. "Our anglers and our corporate sponsors continue to be very committed and supportive."Corporate sponsors of FFH tournaments contribute either monetarily or with "in-kind" bulk food donations. Tournament anglers help out as well, simply by entering an event.

"Fishermen who fish our tournaments can be assured that their entry fees go a long way toward directly helping our cause," Williams explained. "After pay-outs and operating expenses, all monies go directly to the food banks. We are a strictly nonprofit organization." Even tournament expenses are kept low through volunteer staffing.

A corporate sponsorship for the yearly FFH tournament series costs $2,000. Sponsors who can't contribute monetarily (or choose not to do so) may simply donate a supply of surplus or held-over food items that are then passed on to food banks for proper distribution. Tournament fishermen also have the option of securing their own corporate sponsors, who, by contributing a $2,000 per team, enable their fishing team to participate in the entire tournament series without entry fees. A $250 per event sponsorship gets a team entry into individual tournaments.

"We call this our 'Fish for Free' program," Williams said. "We believe it not only motivates fishermen to get out and help with the cause but also brings aboard a lot of sponsors we perhaps did not know were out there. It also gives anglers the opportunity to compete for a couple of thousand dollars in first-prize money in each tournament without any out-of-pocket entry-fee expense to them.

"Of course, if they choose not to do this, we still welcome them to fish as few or as many tournaments as they wish for $250 per team. It all helps."

FFH tournaments are normally held on lakes Seminole, Blackshear, and Walter F. George (Eufaula), southwest Georgia's "big three" bass fishing waters. In the past, FFH events have also been held on lakes Sinclair, Oconee, and West Point. The annual 10-tournament series features nine regular events, plus an invitation-only "Classic" at the end of the season. The tournaments, all "buddy" competitions, generally field between 40 and 50 boats per event.

"We attract a wide variety of fishermen," Williams said. "We get father/son, husband/wife, grandfather/grandson, brother teams -- all kinds. There are truly serious tournament anglers, and many who come just to help the cause and experience a fun day's fishing in the bargain. We appreciate all of them.

"My personal involvement with this organization has been quite enjoyable and rewarding. I've always viewed these tournaments as a great way to participate in a sport you enjoy with the added plus of doing something worthwhile for your community. It's a good thing in general, and I believe it's doing a lot of good in the process."

Becoming involved with FFH is easy. All the information is available on their Web site.

"The best thing about fishing FFH tournaments," concluded Dewey Mitchell, "is you're helping people in need: single mothers with minimum-wage jobs who are skimping on meals for themselves and their kids; senior citizens forced to choose between prescription drugs and groceries; children who rarely, if ever, sit down to wholesome meals. Just by entering a tournament you're helping these people and others. That's because every dollar after expenses that our tournaments raise goes directly to Georgia nonprofit organizations that combat hunger and malnutrition.

"That's why any FFH event -- whether you land in the prize money or not -- is a tournament you can't lose. You'll always go home knowing you've helped your neighbors."

HOW ABOUT THE HUNTERS?
It's very well documented that Georgia hunters are responsible for generating millions of dollars in revenue that helps fund various wildlife conservation efforts throughout the state and nation. They do this, through a largely unconscious effort, each time they purchase hunting licenses, firearms, ammunition, or archery equipment.

Since 1993, however, many of the state's deer hunters have also participated in a program that greatly benefits needy humans as well. This effort is especially noble in that the philanthropy is strictly voluntary.

The Georgia Hunters for the Hungry program has been responsible for collecting and funding the processing of 227,939 total pounds of hunter-donated venison through 2007. With an average of more than 800 harvested deer donated annually over the past seven seasons, HFH continues to supply a vital source of meat protein for many of Georgia's hungry citizens.

Every year deer hunters throughout the state voluntarily contribute a portion of their seasonal harvest to food banks that, in turn, see to it that the donated venison reaches those who need it most. In 2006 alone, Georgia hunters delivered enough meat to supply more than 112,000 meals to program-designated deer processors across the state.

"A program like this is especially vital during fall and winter, when there's more need," said Georgia Wildlife Federation executive vice president Glenn Dowling. "That is when an influx of high-quality protein most needs to come into play in the food banks."

"Hunters are often portrayed in a negative fashion, and the Hunters for the Hungry program provides the opportunity to show that positive results can come from hunting," added former Wildlife Resources Division director and HFH founder David Waller.

Hunters for the Hungry and other programs like it operate in nearly every state, where total pounds of donated venison continue to steadily increase. In December 2007, for example, HFH provided its millionth meal to people in need at the Community Concerns Outreach Center in Atlanta. Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue praised the group's dedicated efforts.

"The success of the Georgia Hunters for the Hungry program is evidence of what can be accomplished when our state agencies and nonprofit organizations work together," said Perdue. "Serving the millionth meal this holiday season reminds us all of the importance of giving to those in need by donating to our state food banks. It is our hope that through the continued success of this program, millions more protein-rich meals will be served to Georgians in need."

Because of HFH's efforts, venison donated by Georgia hunters has become a staple on state food bank menus for the past 15 years. The meat is prepared in the form of chili, lasagna, and burgers and is of great benefit as a low-fat, low-cholesterol protein source.

Georgia Hunters for the Hungry is a multi-agency initiative with sponsors including the WRD, Georgia Wildlife Federation, the Georgia Department of Agriculture, the Georgia Department of Corrections, and the Atlanta Community Food Bank, representing the Georgia State Association of Food Banks.

To participate in the HFH program, hunters need only bring their field-dressed deer to any designated drop-off location during the dates set aside for collection. Drop-off sites and dates appear in the Georgia Hunting Seasons & Regulations 2000 '“ 2009 booklet and not the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Web site. Collection venues are marked with a blaze orange HFH banner.

"It is our responsibility to see that we use our resources wisely," concluded GWF president and chief executive officer Jerry McCollum. "This program is an outstanding way to show that hunters care not only about the game they pursue, but also about those in need."

Obviously, more than a few Georgia hunters are taking that to heart.

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