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Deer hunters help combat food insecurity in Iowa

An Iowa program aims to fix two problems: food insecurity and deer overpopulation. Dubbed Help Us Stop Hunger, Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources has leveraged Iowa’s popular deer hunting industry into more than 10 million meals for the needy. Special correspondent Josh Buettner of Iowa Public Television reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    People going without enough nutritious food remains an issue across this country.

    And one program in Iowa tries to help solve two problems at once: a burgeoning deer population and hunger.

    From Iowa Public Television, Josh Buettner explains how hunters are helping fill empty plates.

  • Mike Nelson:

    As a hunter, that's what we want to see. That's telling us that we have a buck in the area.

  • Josh Buettner:

    As a steward of the land, Mike Nelson implements conservation practice on his farm in Central Iowa's Warren County. However, one woodland creature can respond a little too well to such rural accommodations.

    Iowa corn and soybeans might help feed the world, but those same growing areas provide shelter and nutrition for four-legged drifters, which some land owners consider a nuisance.

  • Mike Nelson:

    They will just devastate our crops. And if we didn't harvest some of those, we'd just get overrun and we'd have way too many deer.

  • Josh Buettner:

    But Nelson has found a way to decrease numbers in his own backyard and uproot hunger locally, thanks to a partnership between outdoorsmen, meat lockers, nonprofits and state government.

  • Mick Klemesrud:

    We've got as many top 100 scored deer as any other state. We've come on strong. We have one of the most in-demand non-resident deer licenses. We do limit those to 6,000. But our bow deer tags are probably the most in-demand deer license in the country.

  • Josh Buettner:

    Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mick Klemesrud says nearly 15 years ago the DNR hatched a plan to cut back on a deer population that had become a hazard in urban areas and allow hunters to donate excess harvest to those in need.

    While roadkill is ineligible, what followed was the statewide HUSH program, or Help Us Stop Hunger. Officials say the program's first decade saw over 63,000 deer, equaling more than 10 million meals provided to the needy.

  • Mick Klemesrud:

    Iowa's deer are world-class deer. And what we have done is, we have structured our seasons so we can make sure that those large-bodied animals can pass their genetics on before the gun seasons start. Not a lot of other states do that, and they don't have the same deer — quality deer herd that we do.

  • Josh Buettner:

    The DNR estimates Iowa's current deer population at roughly half-a-million. And while 2017's numbers await a final spring tally, 2016 about 2,800 deer donated, with the largest number coming from Milo, Iowa.

    Milo Locker co-owner Darrell Goering says that's just shy of 18,000 pounds.

  • Darrell Goering:

    We are in deer country. South central Iowa is a great place to be if you're a deer hunter. And we're just blessed to be here.

  • Josh Buettner:

    Processors receive $75 from the state for each animal. The meat is shredded and packaged in 2 pound chubs, and given to food banks for distribution.

  • Darrell Goering:

    Real lean. Lean red meat. So if you're watching your cholesterol, or things like that, then deer is a good thing to eat.

  • Josh Buettner:

    Goering says all parties involved benefit under the agreement, and together they have streamlined how hunters contribute.

  • Darrell Goering:

    All a hunter needs to do is legally harvest a whitetail deer, properly tag it, field dress it, bring it in. It's really two minutes and the paperwork's filled out, little index card, and he's good to go. And we take over from there.

  • Josh Buettner:

    Over two dozen lockers participate in the program and work with eight food banks serving those who are food-insecure across the state.

    Danny Akright, communications manager with the Des Moines-based Food Bank of Iowa, says proteins like meat are one of the most difficult nutritional products to come by. In calendar year 2017, his nonprofit received nearly 73,000 pounds of venison through HUSH.

    And Akright points out the huge advantage of being able to take the show on the road.

  • Danny Akright:

    One of the misconceptions that a lot of people have about those who are hungry is that it's an inner-city problem, when, really, it's an everywhere problem.

    And, really, in our rural communities is one of the hardest places to reach them. They may not have access to a traditional food resource like a food pantry or a soup kitchen. So we have to design programs like the mobile food pantry to go in and meet those needs in those rural communities.

  • Jeanene Jones:

    Oh, I think it's great. I'm not a Des Moines driver, not even very far, so it is nice to have it come to Milo. You know, it's really, really helped.

  • Josh Buettner:

    Akright says feedback from recipients, as well as those canvassing woods and fields, has been overwhelmingly positive.

  • Danny Akright:

    One of the things that I love to hear is when hunters tell us that they are active HUSH hunters. For them, it's a sport of passion. They love to do it. They will hunt and take down a deer and help feed their own family. And when they have the ability to provide that nutritious meat to a family in need, that means something to them.

  • Josh Buettner:

    Mike Nelson agrees. From tree stand or deer blind, he helps manage an Iowa resource with high reproduction rates and few, if any, natural predators.

  • Mike Nelson:

    One deer for us is plenty. Otherwise, it'd just go to waste in one of two ways. You would either have it processed and it would sit in your freezer, and you would never eat it, or you wouldn't harvest the deer to begin with, and then you would just be overrun with them.

  • Josh Buettner:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Josh Buettner in Des Moines, Iowa.

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