Hunting for Anthropologists: Deer Hunting and the Local Food Movement

By Elizabeth Danforth, MPH PhD, Iowa Food Systems Council
picture by Elizabeth Danforth

The average hunter is white, rural and male.  His father hunted, and he likely hunts close to home.  This description perfectly describes my husband, although he also tracks the mileage of his meals, knows more about local microbrew seasonals than field dressing a deer, and is married to a nutritional anthropologist.  This weekend, for the first time ever, he’s joining his dad and uncles in Iowa’s early shotgun deer season.  My husband is part of a slowly growing segment of the local food movement which has begun to explore hunting as part of the larger local food movement.  As of yet however, this movement has been reticent to embrace hunting as an integral part of sustainable eating.  Authors such as Michael Pollan have ventured into hunting to provide anecdotal examples in popular media, but the concept has been largely ignored elsewhere, most notably by anthropologists.  A quick search of recent anthropological articles related to hunting supplies a multitude of articles related to Inuit groups, Amazonian small land holders, and indigenous Nicaraguan communities. However, anthropologists have provided virtually nothing related to the 12.5 million people who currently hunt in the United States (US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006. National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation).  In one of the few ethnographies of American hunting culture, Marc Boglioli highlights the traditional anthropological division between the ‘noble savage’ and the ‘ignoble Westerner’.  Researchers and the public-at-large celebrate animist spirituality of indigenous hunting and traditional subsistence patterns in the ethnographic other, but run from the modern American hunting industry and “you might be a redneck if…..” jokes.  (You might be a redneck if…’ve even been involved in a custody battle over a hunting dog.)

Despite the lack of anthropological interest in modern American deer hunting, it has the potential to be an important and powerful part of the local food movement and sustainable food systems.  The white-tailed deer population in the United States was decimated by the beginning of the 20th century.  In the intervening 110 years, this population has grown exponentially.  According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, left unchecked, which it largely would be without hunters, deer populations can double about every three years.  Human management of deer is essential to modern herds.  More than 300,000 deer live in my home state of Iowa before one third are culled every hunting season.  The vast food resources and essential ecological management provide important opportunities to address the pillars of the local food movement.

While deer hunting has been largely ignored by anthropologists and sustainable food system advocates, several interesting ventures do exist.  These include Deer Hunting for Locavores, a class tailored to urbanites who grew up outside of traditional American hunting culture and who are searching for local food options.  Another is the Bull Moose Hunting Society.  This group aims to expose urban foodies to wild game food resources, reconnect urban eaters to nature and recenter hunting as an essential part of local sustainable food systems.  Deer hunting is also an important contributor to local food security through venison donation programs, which exist in all 50 states as well as several areas in Canada.  These programs provide existing hunters with the opportunity to hunt more and reduce waste.  They can have a powerful impact on food security.  For example, 1.1 million meals were donated through the Iowa DNR’s Help Us Stop Hunger (HUSH) program.

Within the local food movement, there is the need to explore the many logistical and cultural issues surrounding deer hunting.  These include the cultural acceptability of venison as a food resource among food aid recipients, safety concerns of lead shot, and the cost and training required to hunt, as well as cultural constructions such as gender and ethnicity in relationship to hunting.  Additionally, the cultural divide between traditional American hunters and the more cosmopolitan local food movement locavores is important to understand in order to combine the two in a sustainable marriage that highlights and celebrates both as valid cultural traditions worthy of anthropological inquiry.  Maybe then my husband and I won’t have to answer our foodie friends’ inevitable questions, “he’s doing what?” and “are you OK with this?”


  1. I think this is a great area to explore! Growing up in the suburban northeast I was on the edge of hunting and was raised thinking it was somewhat “barbaric.”

    While I disagree with sport hunting (such as ranches that breed solely for hunting) I was exposed to hunting as a means of food when I lived for two years in Colorado. Many of my friends, who were local or transplants from the midwest/northern states, had depended upon venison, goose, duck, elk, etc. to supplement their diets growing up. This was especially true for many of my acquaintances who had come from poor, rural households whose only source of meat was self-acquired.

    Their appreciation of the hunt as a challenge and respect to the animal, and their use of the majority of the animal completely changed my ignorant views of hunting. The hunt is challenging and requires skill. The hunter knows exactly where his/her food came from. The hunter utilizes as much of the catch as possible. The hunter can be reassured that the animal lived a free, un-abused, and un-altered (I’m thinking hormones, antibiotics, and cruel breeding here) existence. The hunter works for his/her meal, and respects the animal that gave its life to feed their family and friends.

    After spending two years eating gifts of elk and venison from my friends I also recognized how much I enjoyed the lean meat and energy. Although this is subjective, I just *felt* healthier using this meat as my main source of protein.

    I am currently exploring chest freezer options so that I can continue to support hunting and sustainable pastoral initiatives even after leaving CO. This option appears to me healthy, safe, sustainable, and cost effective (if you can pay up front) as compared to current supermarket products, even the “green” ones.

    I encourage you to continue to explore this topic, I think it is a very valuable contribution to sustainable food systems and I look forward to hearing more of your findings!

  2. Excellent post. Thought I’d share some work my wife and I are engaged in at Cornell University. First, see

    We have recently been awarded some research funds to explore these ideas. Here is an excerpt from the funded proposal: Our research team will seek understanding about the relationship between food preferences regarding wild fish and game, and recruitment and retention of female sportspersons, and urban hunters and anglers. We will determine the importance of wild fish and game consumption to food security and nutritional education and extension, as well as identifying and addressing technical limitations that exist for consumption of wild fish and game, such as the lack of nutritional analysis about many wild species. Results of this work will include: (1) insights on community social networks that influence food decision-making, (2) nutritional information for three wild fish and game species that can be accessed by hunters and anglers and added to USDA food analysis databases, and (3) publications that guide community organizations to develop communities of practice and interest in local, sustainable activities and foods.

    We are actively pursuing research partnerships within the context of this work, and would love to speak with you if you have interest.

    Keith G. Tidball
    Department of Natural Resources
    Cornell University

    1. I am a Ph.d. student at OSU and plan to incorporate this topic into my dissertation. I recently conducted a survey (and I am currently working on the report) that asks about issues such as selling wild game, local organic preferences… I will start writing a new survey of Ohio hunters in the next few weeks. If you are planning to send out a survey in the near future or have in the recent past it might be valuable to ask some common questions of each sample.

      Adam Pettis
      School of Environment and Natural Resources
      Rural Sociology program
      Ohio State University

  3. What a great topic! I think you hit the nail on the head regarding the surprise and concern from your foodie friends regarding your husband’s “red neck” hunting hobby when you noted the, “cultural divide between traditional American hunters and the more cosmopolitan local food movement locavores.”

    I had a similar experience, laughable in retrospect, when I planned an “authentic” pilgrim-style Thanksgiving dinner for my family a few years ago and decided to serve venison. I was going to buy it from a pricey online retailer for $100/lb! until a friend of a mine whose husband liked to hunt, gave me a few pounds of fresh frozen week-old venison for free. I figured that since the meat was from a wild “free range” animal who was trotting around happily in the Sierra Nevada only a week ago, and that I got it for free, that it would be regarded with approval by everyone. Locavores, foodie friends…even my budget conscious in-laws. Perfect, right?
    Uh, no…

    The responses of my vegetarian and liberal work colleagues included looks of horror accompanied by statements such as “you’re eating it?”. My kids, burnt out on Thanksgiving pilgrim stories by the 5th grade, didn’t even want to try it. “No mom, I don’t want to eat deer. I want to have turkey for Thanksgiving with mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.”

    The responses of my foodie friends and foodie mother were more encouraging and showed a mutual culinary interest. They said like “Wow, that sounds great!”, “Where did you get it?” and “Oh, I just got the best traditional marinade for venison from this great 19th century French cookbook I found…”

    And, then there were my in-laws, who, as first generation immigrants, struggled to make ends meet in Colorado Springs while my husband was in high school. They knew all about venison. My mother-in-law gave me a look of discomfort when I told her and said, “None, for me thanks!” When I pressed her, she explained that during tough economic times in Colorado, they had to feed their family of five on the cheapest meat available, which was a side of venison from a local hunter that they bought from the local butcher and kept in their meat freezer in the garage. The meat lasted them for months, the last pieces dry and freezer burned. Finally, hubby, a vegetarian-pescatarian, was grateful that I was into cooking that Thanksgiving, but he couldn’t eat venison–or turkey.

    That Thanksgiving I did more cooking than I ever have before or since. I ended up baking a 12 lb turkey with stuffing (for the kids and mother in-law), broiling about 3 lbs of venison with a 19th century marinade sauce that included a cherry juice reduction with sherry (for my mother, myself and some delicious left-overs for the dogs). And, I made a pot of fish chowder that my husband found delicious. These main dishes were in addition to the obligatory side dishes favored by the pilgrims (samp and succatash, pumpkin pie…) and both sides of the family, my side and hubby’s side (too many to mention).

    During the meal, my mother, who thinks she’s funny, teased me in front of our kids, “Oh my God, you ate Bambi!”

    Never again…

  4. What a great topic. This is fascinating. I have a friend who will kill and eat rattlesnakes. My take on it as a locavore has always been: “Well, it’s free range…” I am eager to find out what you come up with on this topic. That said, all I can offer from my own life is an abhorrence of the idea of killing animals, one that I am increasingly admitting isn’t very practical. I garden to grow my vegetables, and I keep chickens because I need the manure for the garden. But 50% of chickens are roosters, and you cannot have a flock with 50% roosters. In the city, I cannot even have one rooster. Right now we’ve got a big meaty boy named Spot who will be big enough to eat in a few months. Once he crows, he has to go somewhere. Will we eat him? In theory I think we should, but I cannot bear the thought of killing him (or having someone else do it), and we would take great pains to kill him humanely. If I cannot even deal with that, how would I ever embrace hunting?

  5. You’re bang on, Elizabeth. I’m studying meat hunters in Alberta, Canada and there’s definitely a push for renewing hunting foodways as a source of alternative (local/slow/organic) food and of alternative foood provisioning experiences. However, contemporary food studies has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to hunting: discussions tend to be limited to hunting as a “traditional” (or “country”) subsistence foodway used only in remote or aboriginal communities. Meanwhile, hunting is being vigorously re-imagined by semi-urban, peri-urban, or urban-refugee food activists and politicized food consumers – locavores, slow foodists, paleo-locavores, etc.

    If you’re interested in what’s going on in Canada, take a quick look at Kevin Kossowan’s food blog (he hunts moose) or at Kristeva Dowling’s blog (she also hunts). You might also want to look at Jackson Landers’s “Locavore Hunter” blog (Landers is located in Virginia, I believe).

    While Pollan claimed in Omnivore’s Dilemma that his “perfect meal” exercise, which included hunting for pig, was unfit for widespread adoption, hunting is being readily explored and adopted as a food provisioning alternative by populations not currently recognized or studied in food studies. I think it’s high time we correct this oversight.

    Kevin Kossowan (AB):
    Kristeva Dowling (BC):
    Jackson Landers (Virginia):

    Rebecca C. Den Hoed
    Department of Communication and Culture
    University of Calgary

  6. Thanks for writing this, Elizabeth! I used to be very anti-hunting, but as I grew more aware of the local food movement (and the challenges that exist in accessing it), I realized that pursuing and killing your own meat is one of the most authentic ways that anyone can connect with the food s/he consumes. My step-dad hunts, and every time I go home, I look forward to whatever venison/quail/boar he’s got in the freezer.

    Looking forward to reading more,
    Jen Ede
    The Vintage Eats Project

  7. I actually included a rather large section on the “gendered” nature of hunting cultures in my UW-Madison PhD dissertation focusing on community management of common property resources in Zimbabwe.

    It is interesting how men (both colonial and indigenous) in the southern African context focus their efforts on “large” (aka charismatic megafauna) while women (indigenous predominantly) concentrate on hunting smaller creatures (birds, mice, caterpillars) – which end up accounting for a large percentage of subsistence protein. One exception to this “size” issue is the ostrich, which is traditionally considered “women’s game” in Zimbabwe and requires a bit of skill and effort to hunt, kill, pluck, and process.

    In terms of contemporary local food movements in the global north, it has also been intriguing to see how quickly many “academic experts” dismiss the relevance of wild foods (both plants and animals) in our food system. I recall being at one recent national U.S. conference where someone even argued that wild rice was not a “crop” and that those who harvested it are not “farmers.” Of course, the first nation folks who were there were rather shocked, as were many of the rest of us who hunt and gather often.

    In the global south, this dichotomy between wild and domestic food is obviously not so clearcut. For instance, La Via Campesina specifically identifies hunters, gatherers, foresters, herders, and fishers as all participants (and allies) – along with farmers and farmworkers – in the broader community food sovereignty movement.

  8. I find it interesting to see a connection with UW-Madison where Aldo Leopold and Paul Errington, both avid hunter/trappers in their younger days did a great deal of keystone work and Alan Savory who started the Holistic Management International Group in Zimbabwe formulated his basic ideas. All three were into sustainability before it became the fashion. HMI has also been able to generate greater sustainability with their in depth work with small and medium size farmers of all types in several areas of the U.S.

  9. I’m a married woman from Iowa….and I hunt deer, pheasants, turkey, and also enjoy fishing. My dad and brother took me hunting when I was a young girl….we would hunt squirrel, rabbit, pheasant, duck, goose, dove and also enjoyed fishing. I loved this time with them being outdoors and close to nature and eating the fresh meat. So my husband and I started hunting deer several years ago to give us a meat source besides beef, chicken and pork. And also to get rid of some of the deer that are damaging our crops (we are farmers). Our group started out as my husband, his best friend and me. Through the years friends have come and gone hunting with us. This weekend our group will consist of my husband, our son, our 2 son in laws, a cousin of one of our son in laws, a father and brother of one of our son in laws, and a grandson. Our daughters both have taken the hunters safety course but choose to Christmas shop during this weekend. Our whole family enjoys the deer steaks, jerky, deer sausage, breakfast sausage, etc. I can’t wait til Saturday morning!

  10. I grew up in Italy, from a family of hunters. Hunters do love nature, and respect it. I have remembrance of enchanted high mountain hikes, since I was 8 years old, in places where my father would bring me only because he had to discover possible spots for Chamois hunting. I learnt a great deal through these experiences. About challenges. About respecting life and death. About rituality. About good food. About the “male’s clubs.”
    Italy has a hunting policy to keep the wild population under control, and maintain an “ecological balance.” I always wondered why the US wouldn’t put any policy in place to seriously control their deer population. In all New York, deers have arrived to be a nuisance, like unwanted dogs, eating all of the flowers, and the gardens. Creating un-numbered car accidents, and insurance costs. Threatening the health of the population, as climate change and proliferation of tick-carriers of lyme disease are spreding at an impressive speed.
    I welcome this conversation.
    Till next

  11. I’ve had mixed thoughts about this article, unable to put my finger on what was not working for me until I read Jasia’s piece on Comfood and the rural vs urban distinction became more evident in the discussion.

    Hunting certainly is part of most rural sustainable food systems, and is
    practiced as well in the southern tier of NY where I live. Though I’m not
    sure hunted venison can be part of an urban sustainable food system.
    Personally, as a deer farmer, I rely on those urban markets as a customer base for product these customers don’t usually have access to. I’d hate to loose any more market share as my rural neighbors won’t buy venison when they certainly can hunt it!

    As Jasia writes, “There is danger and responsibility for both the wildlife
    and fellow hunters, so the passage is a serious consideration of life and
    death”. I have yet to encounter this concern from urban “recreationalists” who come to the southern tier of NY to deer hunt. While my neighbors might not outright give thanks to the deer for sacrificing its life so that they might be fed, there is a sense of gratitude in that without the meat they would indeed go hungry.

    However, hunting is expensive so the question of economic sustainability is an issue not thoroughly discussed here. Jasia writes, “there is also the camaraderie of hunters, new technologies of hunting gear, traditional hunting cabins and hunting grounds, etc. that are included in the ritual”. In addition to becoming outfitted with clothes, guns, ammo, knives, boots, treestands, etc.. there’s also fees for hunting licenses.

    In some areas hunters lease land specifically for hunting. So add on rental fees or other land costs (because the deer need to be “fed” by someone, and that someone is usually a farmer who has his/her crops destroyed by these uninvited critters). Then there’s lack of productivity as people take off time from work or school which is also not accounted for. So hunting has alot of “externalized” costs.

    Is venison expensive? Yes! I happen to raise deer for the venison markets. It hasn’t been an easy farming venture and convincing people to pay $20/lb for lean venison hasn’t been easy in these economic times. But there are reasons for the price.

    Finally, deer farmers have played an important role in restoring wild
    populations when at the brink of collapse. Allowing for retail sales of
    hunter harvested game puts these legitimate farms at a serious competitive disadvantage.

    Should wild hunter-harvested venison be part of a local food movement? Certainly, but let’s not forget what “local” means.

  12. This is a great article, and the reader’s comments are also great. I am in Norway now but spent 13 years in Scotland where venison is not as far from the common menu as in the States (btw, i grew up in Canada). Increasingly in the UK, there is a reassertion of the value of ‘wild’ game food supplies, whether venison or hare.
    Of course, the situation there is very different in that there are no ‘wild’ lands, which means no wild hunting. But the deer population has exploded on the large estates and deer culling is needed to protect the planting of woodlands, the reintroduction of endangered bird species, and simply because the populations are above the carrying capacity of the land. See SNH’s report on wild deer here:
    One phenomenon where this appears is in the acquisition by communities of Community Woodlands ( In order to manage their new woodlands, communities are sometimes obliged (sometimes legally) to manage and cull deer.

    What is also interesting is the way the issue is treated in the UK media. Increasingly, venison is appearing more frequently on UK cookery shows, and apparently demand for it is growing exponentially.

    So if you are researching ‘eating wild meat’, it is worth checking out the scene in the UK as social acceptance slowly increases, and as new supply chains (often with new rural development agendas) appear.

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