By GRANT SCHULTE Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Despite a rough first year, a new state program that pays Nebraska meat processors to prepare donated deer meat is making progress in feeding the hungry.
The Hunters Helping the Hungry program has received 236 deer so far this year, with some deer-hunting seasons still underway. Last year, hunters donated 213 deer.
The program, now in its second year, got off to a slow start in 2012 because of a disease outbreak that reduced eastern Nebraska's deer population. Even so, it generated more than 11,500 pounds of venison statewide — enough for an estimated 46,144 meals.
"We're definitely ahead of where we were last year," said Teresa Lombard, who oversees the program for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "The word has spread a little bit more. With that said, we can still take a lot more."
The Hunters Helping the Hungry program contracts with local meat-processors to prepare the donated venison, which processors grind and distribute in 2-pound bags through a network of regional community groups. The meat ends up in local food pantries to help feed needy families.
Lombard said the program, funded by donations, still has money this year to pay for deer processing. This year, 22 meat processors have contracted with the state. A group of Nebraska businesses and nonprofits contributed more than $30,000 in the program's first year, and hunters have the option to make a donation when they apply for hunting permits.
Meat processors said donations this year have increased as awareness spread among hunters. Broken Bow Pack, a central Nebraska processor, has prepared 27 deer for the program so far in 2013, up from 12 the previous year. Hunters from Nebraska, Iowa and Louisiana have offered to donate their meat after bagging a deer, said owner Steve Burnett.
"A lot of hunters just want the antlers," Burnett said. "To them, it's good to have some place for the meat to go."
The Southeast Nebraska Community Action Partnership received about 350 pounds of ground venison last year from Den's Locker in Table Rock. Pam Armknecht, the group's community services director, said the meat was divided equally among the six counties in her outreach area.
"It helps a lot, because as a very rural area, we don't always get a lot of donations of meat products," said Armknecht, who is based in Humboldt. "This was great. It's something that people can use in place of hamburger. I know that people, from what I heard, were very appreciative of it."
The program was proposed in 2012 by former state Sen. Tony Fulton, of Lincoln. It was backed by Nebraska hunting groups, homeless shelters and the Nebraska Catholic Conference. In a legislative hearing at the time, some ranchers and meat processors said they were already donating venison to families in their area, but on a smaller scale.
Lombard said she won't know until February how many deer were donated this year. Last year, she said, about half of the deer were killed during the November firearm season. One-fourth came during the archery season, which runs from mid-September through December, and the remaining 25 percent was gathered in the late-season antlerless firearm season, from late December through early January.
The Nebraska program was inspired by similar ones in Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota and Colorado. Iowa's program, Help Us Stop Hunger, saw 5,281 deer donated during the 2012-13 hunting season, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The donations were enough to provide about 880,000 meals.
The programs help fill a critical meat shortage for food pantries between February and April, said Brian Barks, a spokesman for the Omaha-based Food Bank for the Heartland. The group stores the venison and distributes it to food pantries, emergency shelters and meal providers in 77 Nebraska counties and 16 in western Iowa.
The group received 726 pounds through Nebraska's program last year, according to a state report.
"Even though it's a new program, the potential is tremendous," Barks said. "I'd really like the hunting community to know how much their efforts are appreciated in participating in this program, getting it off the ground, and expanding it from year to year."