For most of us, getting a good meal is only as difficult as cooking up some homemade fare or selecting one of the many fine restaurants located in the Venice community. Sadly, during these troubled economic times, an increasing number of our fellow residents are turning to All Faiths Food Bank for assistance in finding wholesome meals. According to interim executive director Nicole Double, one in eight Sarasota County residents receives assistance from All Faiths Food Bank, which will distribute up to six million pounds of food this year.
While the non-profit agency gratefully receives donations from our community, one food group is often in short supply: protein. Government regulations restrict the donation of fresh meat, and high prices make it expensive to purchase, thus creating a chronic shortage.
This is where R.G. “Kelly” Caldwell Jr. enters the picture. A long-time resident of Venice, Kelly heads Caldwell Trust Company and is known in the business community for being resourceful and innovative. So, it’s not surprising that he thought outside of the box to help find a solution to our community’s protein shortage.
An avid hunter, Kelly was sitting in a deer stand in the woods of South Carolina when he spotted a likely doe wandering below. Mindful of his wife’s admonition not to bring home more venison to fill their already-crowded freezer, Kelly let the deer pass by. It occurred to him that he was letting a potential food source for hungry people slip away. He made inquiries at his church about donating the spoils of hunting trips to their feed-the-hungry program, but found himself flummoxed by government regulations.
Unwilling to let his idea fade, Kelly discovered a national organization called Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (FHFH) that allows hunters to bring their surplus deer to participating meat processors and then donate the meat. He was delighted to further discover a local chapter of FHFH that had been established by Gary and Missy Plum, but they were struggling to raise money and get the word out to area hunters.
It was a match made in heaven. Once Kelly’s business sense was married with the Plums’ vision, the project gained momentum. He recruited a local meat processor—Palmetto Meat Shop—to obtain the necessary USDA certifications to become an “acceptable processor” for donated meat. He tapped his contacts at the Sarasota Sportsmen Association to spread the news, and solicited $2,000 in donations from local Walmart stores to help cover processing costs. He also contacted All Faiths Food Bank to see if they might be interested in receiving donations of ground venison. The answer was a resounding yes.
“This is something we’ve never done before, but we are thrilled to have a new source of much-needed protein,” said Double. “Deer meat is very healthy, lean and low in fat, which is in keeping with our goal of supplying healthy foods to the community. I’m sure a nice bowl of venison chili or stew will be much appreciated by the people we serve.”
According to Kelly, hunters who donate their extra deer to FHFH will receive a tax donation letter. Meat processing fees will be covered by the Gulf Coast FHFH chapter, and All Faiths will coordinate the storage and distribution of the processed meat.
“It’s a win-win situation for everyone, even the deer,” said Kelly, who points to overpopulation of deer and the damage they do to crops and property as one of the main reasons for hunting them. “Hunters have the opportunity to hunt more often and do some good for the less fortunate. Farmers and ranchers are able to manage a significant nuisance while benefiting the community. And hungry people get a good meal of wholesome food.”
Kelly acknowledges that some people may have a problem with the idea of hunting deer, but counters any objections with the conviction that deer populations need to be humanely managed. “Hunters are among the best stewards of the environment that I’ve ever seen,” he said. “They don’t harvest what they don’t need. This is a renewable resource that represents a way for a group of responsible people to do something they enjoy and do something good at the same time. It makes too much sense not to do it.”
As he looks to the future, Kelly is excited about the possibilities for FHFH. He hopes to have donations from as many as 50 to 100 deer this year. A second meat processor—Geir’s Sausage Kitchen in Sarasota—has recently become certified for the program, and he hopes to find a third. He also plans to research donating meat from wild hogs, another population that he says is running rampant and causing damage to lawns and crops.
Kelly and his wife Melissa live in Venice with their three young sons. “Venice is a wonderful place to raise a family,” said Kelly. “When I left for college, I had no intention of coming back, but I’m so glad I did.” Kelly joined his father’s business in 1988 at what was then called Caldwell & Company, and together they launched Caldwell Trust Company.