Butcher Bernabe Arbo slices a hung of wild caribou meat at Off The Hook Meatworks in Whitehorse. (Jesse Winter/ Yukon News)

Whitehorse food bank to pilot accepting wild meat

Long-sought changes allow hunters to donate wild meat to Whitehorse food bank

By Jeese Winter

When Jeremy Norton was a hunter in Alaska, his church helped run a meat recovery program that provided wild game meat to the local food bank. If a moose, elk, or other game animal was killed on a highway, state troopers would mobilize a group of hunters through Norton’s church to collect the meat, process it, and donate it to the food bank.

Those same hunters also often donated excess meat from their own hunts, providing a much needed boost to local food bank stocks, Norton said.

“When I first came to Whitehorse I said, ‘Why don’t we do wild game at the food bank?’ and they said ‘Oh, we can’t because of legislation, Health Canada regulations, etcetera,’” Norton said.

But thanks to a new pilot program put in place by the Yukon government, that could soon change.

The Whitehorse food bank is piloting a system in collaboration with Environment Yukon, the Yukon Fish and Game Association and Off The Hook Meat Works that — if all goes smoothly — would allow the territory’s hunters to finally donate excess wild meat to the food bank.

“There’s always been an keen interest,” said Tristan Newsome, the Whitehorse food bank’s executive director. “Just the other week we had an individual come in who was doing a survey in terms of what issues were important to people as a northerner — a lot of the responses we got back were having access to wild game.”

A large percentage of food bank clients are Indigenous, and many of them grew up eating wild game, Newsome said. Helping them and other clients access wild game through the food bank is important.

Norton, who also sits on the food bank’s board of directors, agrees.

“Just because someone’s having a rough time and using the food bank, we shouldn’t think ‘Oh tough luck and you get what you get.’ We should do our best to get them the best,” Norton said.

Previously, the food bank wasn’t allowed to accept donations of wild meat because there was no formal process in place that met Health Canada regulations. Wild game must be processed at an inspected and licensed facility before it arrives at a food bank.

It’s a long-running quandary that’s occasionally confounded food banks and hunters in other jurisdictions across the country.

In Alberta and Saskatchewan, hunters have long been encouraged to donate their excess meat. On the other side of the country, however, hunters in Newfoundland and Labrador are still fighting for the same privilege.

Newsome said the biggest concern in the Yukon was ensuring that donated meat is handled and processed properly, and stored in a separate freezer from store-bought meat.

Hunters are not allowed to donate meat they processed themselves. Instead, they must take it to Off The Hook Meat Works in Whitehorse, because it’s an inspected facility. From there the meat is professionally butchered, packaged and frozen before being handed over to the food bank, Newsome said.

The whole process is free for the hunters and the food bank, with the Yukon government footing the bill for the butchering and packaging.

“There’s no disincentive at all,” Newsome said.

At this point, the program is only in a pilot phase, Norton said.

Staff from Yukon Environment have reached out to the Yukon Outfitters Association and the fish and game board for a small amount of donations so they can test-run the process and ensure everything runs smoothly. If all goes well, they will open donations up more widely for next season, Norton said.

Norton himself is headed out moose hunting this week and, if he’s successful, he’ll donate some of it to the food bank himself.

He praised the staff at Environment Yukon for finally getting a program like this up and running in the territory.

“Because this is coming from inside the government, it finally happened,” Norton said. “High fives to them.”

Contact the Yukon News at editor@yukon-news.com