Iowa doubles down on deer donations amid pandemic

Iowa has a new program encouraging hunters to donate extra meat to those who need it. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The state has doubled down on its efforts to encourage deer hunters to donate extra meat to others as the coronavirus pandemic continues to leave many Iowans out of work. 

The 17-year-old Help Us Stop Hunger (HUSH) program that has distributed up to 4,000 deer a year through food banks. That’s enough for 600,000 meals a year, and the program soon will pass the 15 million meal mark since it started, said Alicia Plathe, program coordinator. This year, the state started the Iowa Deer Exchange, which allows hunters who don’t need the meat to give it directly to someone who requested venison. It is illegal to sell venison in Iowa.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mick Klemesrud said the exchange is based on a successful program in Nebraska. “DNR created a platform where hunters who want to donate deer can be connected with recipients looking for venison,” Klemesrud said. So far, 230 people have registered, more recipients than deer donors at this point. 

The Iowa Wildlife Federation joined with state and nonprofit officials on a Zoom news conference Tuesday to promote the programs. 

A local nonprofit leader said the pandemic has made food insecurity an even more pressing issue in Iowa. 

“Food insecurity is not new to the area,” said Aubrey Alvarez, executive director of Eat Greater Des Moines, a network of food providers and those who need food. “It’s not something that just started with COVID. But COVID has really increased the need.

It’s not just about quantity. “There are a lot more people who are not only looking for food, but quality food,” Alvarez said. “With more than 450,000 households in Iowa struggling just to afford basic household expenses, a lot of times the first that goes is being able to purchase food.” 

People will skip meals so they can pay for rent and child care, Alvarez said. “That’s where HUSH working in the emergency food space with food pantries and free meal sites is definitely meeting high demand for protein, especially lean protein,” she added.

State Auditor Rob Sand, an avid bowhunter, said he usually keeps one deer each year and gives three or four to a Laotian immigrant family in Des Moines. He had previously taken deer to a local meat plant east of Des Moines for processing in the HUSH program, but the business closed.

“A lot of times we forget about the fact that there is food and sustenance all around us,” Sand said. “And in a time where a lot of people have lost their source of income, lost their employment, it’s a really good opportunity to remember there’s other ways to put food on the table for people.”

The fact that venison is lean is a bonus, Sand said. He encouraged deer hunters to share their bounty with people affected by the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.