LINCOLN — Nebraska's largest homeless shelter usually finds enough fruits, vegetables and grains to serve 1,200 meals a day.
Finding high-quality lean protein to fit into the food pyramid, however, often presents a much greater challenge to Omaha's Siena-Francis House.
So Tim Sully, the shelter's development director, will travel Thursday to the State Capitol to support a bill that would allow Nebraska hunters to donate deer to those who rarely see red meat on their plates.
"It's an understatement to say we could use it," Sully said. "We would use it, we would welcome it, and we would be grateful for it."
Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln has wanted Nebraska to develop a venison donation program similar to one in Iowa since he was appointed to the Legislature in 2007. He said he feels urgency to get Legislative Bill 1163 passed now because 2012 will be his final session.
"This is a no-brainer," he said. "It helps reduce deer populations, and it helps feed the hungry."
While the goal of a deer donation might be hard to argue against, the potential cost of paying for meat processing and distribution has raised objections within the agency that would administer such a program.
"We're opposed to it as it's written," said Jim Douglas, deputy director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "The funding aspect of it is the area of greatest concern."
Iowa can provide Nebraska with insights into the costs and benefits of deer donation.
The Help Us Stop Hunger program has proved so popular with hunters in recent years that supplemental funding has been required, said Jim Coffey, who administers the program for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Hunters pay $1 to the HUSH program for each permit they buy. In 2010, the state sold about 350,000 permits.
The same year, hunters donated 6,300 deer to the program. Participating meat lockers are paid $75 per deer to turn the animals into 2-pound sacks of ground venison.
The final bill for the season tallied $500,000, or about $150,000 more than was generated by the permit surcharge, Coffey said.
To make up the difference, the department dipped into an account funded by sales of all hunting and fishing licenses. No general fund money was used, Coffey said.
The Iowa program was designed nine years ago to provide an incentive for hunters to decrease the whitetail deer population. Coffey advised Nebraska officials to define their goal before launching a deer donation program.
"If it's instituted as a social program, it needs to be funded as a social program, and that means general fund tax dollars," he said.
While the costs of the HUSH program are well-documented, so are its benefits. The deer donated in 2010 equated to about 1 million servings of ground venison.
The Food Bank of Iowa coordinates the pickup and distribution of the ground venison, which is packaged and frozen in 2-pound sacks. They try to keep the meat in local pantries close to the communities where it was donated, said Stacey Olson, the Food Bank's program coordinator.
"The Food Bank of Iowa loves the program," Olson said. "That being said, things are always changing, especially the financial situation."
The Nebraska legislative proposal would not require a surcharge on all the roughly 140,000 deer permits sold annually.
Instead, Fulton favors allowing hunters donating a deer to pay a fee that would be decided by Game and Parks after coordinating with the locker owners.
Fulton's bill would create a Hunters Helping the Hungry fund to hold the fees. He also predicted charitable foundations and private donors would give to the fund.
No additional state funds should be appropriated for the program, Fulton said.
A fiscal note submitted on the bill conservatively estimated $32,000 in general fund expenses for the first year of the program. The analysis also predicted that about 800 deer could be donated in the first year.
The concept sounded worthy to Alan Kuzma, an avid deer hunter and the president of the Lincoln-area chapter of Whitetails Unlimited, a wildlife conservation group with more than 100 members.
For about eight years, the group has run its own deer donation program, in which the group splits the processing costs with the hunters and a meat locker. Last season, they donated 73 deer.
Kuzma predicted most hunters would be willing to pay a modest surcharge to help those in need.
"If the objective is to get the venison to the people who need it, I would just as soon go ahead and pay the extra $2" for a permit, he said. "In the big scheme of things, what's $2? It's a half-gallon of gas."
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