Several Nebraskans will be less hungry this winter thanks to hunter donations for the Hunters Helping the Hungry program. The premise of this program, directed through the Nebraska Game and Parks Commmission, is for hunters to harvest a deer and donate it to a participating local processor.
“The processor then works with a charitable organization getting that benefit out to the community,” said Teresa Lombard, who is the coordinator of the program. “Hopefully, it will make the whole community feel involved in the process. It is not a matter of the hunter donating deer in Bayard, and the meat going to Lincoln and Omaha to feed the needy there. Our goal is to keep that local involvement,” she said.
Hunters can use any valid Nebraska deer permit, and through the HHH program, donate a field-dressed deer to a participating processor. The processor skins and debones the deer, and grinds it into 2 pound packages of venison. The meat is inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to ensure it was processed safely, and is up to food quality standards. “Charitable organizations within the state then distribute it to qualifying individuals and families. A few organizations may even prepare it for people at places like an aging center or the veterans home,” Lombard said.
First year participant Jordan McAllister of JM Pack is enthusiastic about the program. The previous owner of the Bayard, Neb., processing plant had participated in the Hunters Helping the Hungry program for some time. It is a tradition McAllister plans to continue. “There are no other places around here to donate deer, and we think it’s a good program. We are proud to do our part to help people and keep the program going,” he said.
Hunters Helping the Hungry was created by the Nebraska Legislature through LB928 in 2012. When signed into law, the Nebraska Games and Parks Commission was tasked with overseeing the program. Since the first deer were accepted in 2012, donations by hunters has increased by nearly 20 percent a year. Lombard said 200 deer were accepted in 2012, and 734 deer were accepted last year. “Hunters love it because they can harvest a deer, donate it, and feel good about it,” she said. “They don’t have to pay a processing fee, so if they want to buy a permit to hunt another deer, they can do that.”
McAllister said JM Pack has a contract to accept 20 deer for the HHH program this year. “We require that the deer has to yield at least 40 pounds of meat after we debone it. Deer that is donated for this program can only be field dressed. It can’t be quartered, skinned or missing any of the meat. It has to be the whole deer and harvested in Nebraska,” he said.
PROCESSING DONATIONS NEEDED
Despite the increase in deer donations, Lombard said the program struggles to get enough donations from individuals and businesses to cover the $90 per deer processing costs. “While the popularity with the hunters has continued to grow every year, unfortunately, the funds that pay for the processing have been going down the last few years,” Lombard said. “If we don’t get more donations, we may have to restrict processors to what is in their contract, which is only about 475 deer statewide. That is about two-thirds of what we took in last year.”
“Any individual or business can make donations for processing for the HHH program any time throughout the year. The donations are tax deductible, and can be made through the outdoornebraska.gov/hhh website. “They can also write a check and specify it is for the Hunters Helping the Hungry program and mail it in,” Lombard said. “What many people don’t realize is they don’t have to donate a large amount to help. They can donate anything from one cent on up. The dollars given for the program can not be used anywhere else. Basically, for every dollar donated, it creates two meals for someone in need. Sometimes, people don’t realize that $1 really does make a difference.”
Anywhere from 19-22 processors in Nebraska participate in the program. “We give them the opportunity to nominate a charitable organization they might like to work with locally,” Lombard said. “If they don’t have a specific organization in mind, The Food Bank for the Heartland is our fallback because they have a statewide network of food distribution in Nebraska. We know we can depend on them to distribute to the pantries that are local to the processor. If the processor nominates an organization, we contact them to make sure they want to participate.” JM Pack will be distributing the donated venison it processes to the Potters Wheel Ministry in Scottsbluff. “From there, they will distribute it to the churches and the food pantry,” McAllister said.
EASY TO PREPARE
When the program first began, Lombard said food pantries were skeptical about venison and if consumers would embrace it. “What we found out, is it’s very much in demand,” she said “We have food pantries who call and request it. Venison is a healthy meat. It’s very lean, and processors don’t add any beef fat to it. Some people seek out venison because they can’t eat some of the other meat products out there.”
“It is also very easy to prepare. It is ground venison, so it is naturally low in fat and doesn’t need to be drained after it is browned. You can put it in a skillet, open a jar of spaghetti sauce and you have a meal. You can add it to salsa to make tacos or you can even make venison stroganoff,” she said.
“Our goal with this program is to never turn a hunter away who wants to donate a deer, because it is food Nebraskans in need can make use of,” Lombard said. “The program also helps us keep the deer population in the state under control.”
For more information about Hunters Helping the Hungry or to donate, Lombard can be reached at (402) 471-5430.
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.