There are now more food banks across the UK than there are McDonald’s outlets.
While demand has soared, donations have plummeted – in some cases by up to 70%. Protein-rich foods donations in particular have become a scarcity.
"It’s crazy and indefensible,” says the MP Charles Walker. “Venison is a wonderful, sustainable resource but is seen as too posh to eat, ergo – very few people eat it and it ends up being made into dog food. It’s a contradiction of mind-bending proportions.”
Thanks to a two-year pause in culling during Covid, the deer population is at its highest level for 1,000 years: at about 2 million animals – 50 years ago, the population was at 450,000. These herds are growing exponentially: at the current rate, there will be almost 2.4 million deer in the UK by the end of the year. At least 750,000 animals need to be culled this year just to stop this enormous population increasing further. Thanks to post-Brexit complications in exporting the meat, however, and the lack of a UK market for venison, only 350,000 animals are currently being culled each year.
At the same time, a growing number of families hit by the cost of living crisis need healthy food, particularly from protein-rich food groups including meat.
Forestry England, Farm Wilder and the Country Food Trust have created a pipeline funnelling protein-rich, low-fat, low-cholesterol venison meals to food banks, schools, hospitals, the armed forces and prisons across the country. By the end of the year, it is hoped 1 million visitors to food banks will have dined on wild venison ragu. And that’s just the pilot: the aim is to roll the scheme out nationally.
Forestry England will supply 5,000kg of wild venison from forests in Devon and Cornwall to Farm Wilder this year. It will process the venison into ragu and the Country Food Trust will distribute it.
“These meals have literally been a lifesaver,” said Gill Bates, the manager of the Bexley food bank in Erith. “Demand from families is up by 150% but we often have no protein in stock at all. This is a problem because from a health point of view, proteins are the building blocks of life, far more so than the white carbohydrates we get donated in far greater bulk.”