Deer meat helps feed hungry in Johnson County

BY KATIE HEINE | MARCH 10, 2011 7:20 AM

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Dan Best finally moved to Iowa late last year. He wasn’t following a girl or a job. The 26-year-old moved from Michigan to Iowa City for the deer.

Best, who visited during hunting season prior to moving just before the new year, has been hunting since he was 12.

And he’s been donating deer to the Iowa Help Us Stop Hunger program since it was established in 2003.

“A lot of hunters shoot more than one deer, but how many do you really need to fill your freezer?” he said.

Help Us Stop Hunger is a collaborative program sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Food Bank of Iowa, and meat lockers and hunters across the state.

In exchange for permission to shoot more deer, Iowa hunters can choose to donate their game to a participating locker that will prepare and package the meat for area food banks to distribute to those in need. The number of permits granted is contingent on the deer population. In 2009, there were roughly 200,000 deer in Iowa, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

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Although fewer deer were donated this year than in years past, area food pantries said the demand for deer meat is high.

“We’ve had to set limits on how often [clients] can request it,” said Sarah Benson Witry, the director of the food bank at the Johnson County Crisis Center.

More than 2,200 pounds of venison, were donated to the Crisis Center this hunting season, which started in October and ended in January. The meat is packaged into two-pound bags; the Crisis Center Food Bank has already distributed all of the venison it received this winter.

The Food Bank works directly with the Tiffin Locker, a local meat processor.

Tiffin Locker is one of two lockers in Johnson County that participates in the program. Tim Spivey, 60, has owned and operated the locker since he bought it from his father in 1978.

In 2005, the Tiffin Locker began participating in the program.

“It’s a win-win situation on a lot of levels,” Spivey said. “It gets [deer] off the road so people don’t hit them, it gets them out of the farmers’ fields, and it gets food to people who need it.”

Spivey’s locker donated about three dozen deer to the Food Bank during the 2010-11 deer season, which is lower than usual, he said.

The Food Reservoir in Hiawatha services 52 food pantries in seven counties and works directly with nine Help Us Stop Hunger participating lockers.

Around 27,500 pounds of ground deer burger was donated this year, which is down from the 39,000 pounds obtained last year, said Barb Elsasser, Food Reservoir manager.

Though various reasons — like weather or a decrease in the population — could be causing the decrease, Elsasser said she’s glad the program exists.

“We’re just hoping the program continues just to keep it as a viable source; it’s so important,” she said.

Although some food pantry clients were hesitant to eat ground deer, Elsasser said, it has become accepted by many and is always on request.

“Some people come in saying, ‘Do you have it?’ It’s wonderful,” she said.

The program began in central Iowa around the Des Moines area. Eventually the idea spread,t and soon more lockers were pursuing the program.

Stacey Olson, the program’s coordinator at the Natural Resources, said it has received positive feedback. She said she also sees the direct effect of what the program is doing for people across the state.

“I get phone calls on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis from lockers that want to pass along some great stories of people in the community who received a Help Us Stop Hunger meal,” she said.

For people struggling in Iowa, meat is often one of the first items to forgo because it is expensive, she said. Help Us Stop Hunger venison provides high-quality red meat — which is leaner than beef — to those who may not be getting an adequate amount of protein otherwise, Olson said.

“I strongly believe in this program and the good that it’s doing,” she said.

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