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Food bank finds more bang for these bucks

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By JOSH BAUGH | San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — At the intersection of Texas hunters and hungry Texans is a possible solution to two problems that plague the state: a massive deer population and an increasing demand for food assistance to the needy.

At that crossroads, the San Antonio Food Bank stands ready.

"We have always been game for game," said Eric Cooper, the food bank's president and CEO. "It's pretty lean and a great source of protein."

For the past several years, the food bank has distributed thousands of pounds of ground venison, packaged in 2-pound "chubs," to partner agencies in the area that help feed people who are hungry, the working poor, seniors, children, disaster victims, homeless people and single-parent families.

The food bank collects venison two ways: through the Hunters for the Hungry campaign and through the Donate Your Deer Program, the latter of which brings in the majority of the meat.

Across South Texas, large ranches must manage their deer populations and seek state approval each year to cull their herds. There had been a problem with what to do with all the carcasses, said Ken Allen, a retired H-E-B executive who helped start the Donate Your Deer Program.

Working with state biologists, Allen built a network of ranches that call the San Antonio Food Bank when it's time to reduce herd sizes. The food bank sends a refrigerated truck to pick up the carcasses and deliver them to meat processors, who grind the venison and package it into the 2-pound frozen packages.

The program, which Allen said includes as many as 50 ranches, produces the bulk of the venison the food bank receives each year — sometimes more than 10,000 pounds.

Food bank officials say there's another way to increase consumable protein for the hungry: feral hogs. But state and federal regulations hamper the hogs from being put to that use. The hogs must be inspected prior to their slaughter, and that's a costly endeavor.

There's no season on feral hogs, which means they can be taken throughout the year. And they destroy millions of dollars of ranch land every year, so ranchers hire trappers to remove the pigs.

Allen recalled shooting nearly 50 hogs in a day on his ranch a few years ago. He kept one for his family to eat, and the rest were buried in a large hole.

It's a significant waste of meat that could be put to good use, he told the San Antonio Express-News. The hogs could provide protein year-round for the food bank — if Texas can find a solution to the federal requirement of hog inspection.

"Just watching them (go to) waste will bring a tear to your eye if you've been to the orphanage and seen kids without meat for a week," he said.

Meanwhile, the food bank takes part in the Hunters for the Hungry campaign, which targets individual hunters who want to donate a deer. Hunters can shoot and tag a deer and drop it off at a pre-approved meat processor.

They pay a small fee to cover the cost of processing (depending on the processor, that could be anywhere between $20 and $50), and the processor will provide the venison to local food-assistance providers, according to the Hunters for the Hungry website.

Country Moczygemba, who runs the food bank's venison program from its Pearsall produce shed, said there's always a need for protein and that the venison is distributed during the same time of year that it's collected — generally from October through February. Acceptance levels for venison are up, he said.

"You have to have people who will accept it and use the product — no matter what it is," he said. "Of course, a lot of the acceptance has to do with showing people that you can do things with venison."

The food bank conducts demonstrations on how its partner providers can use venison.

"The whole idea behind the venison is that it's a great source of protein, and it's a diverse product to work with," he said.

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, www.mysanantonio.com

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