GREENFIELD — Donations of venison to food pantries throughout the state have skyrocketed in the past year since a local lawmaker pushed to secure funds for a program to feed the hungry.
Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, wrote a bill last year that puts $150,000 annually into the Sportsman’s Benevolence Fund, a program through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to encourage hunters to give extra meat to those in need.
Hunters can donate wild game to a state-approved food processor, which is reimbursed through the fund to donate the processed meat – usually venison burgers – to food banks.
There was 66,715 pounds of deer meat donated through the program from the 2013-2014 hunting season, according to the DNR. That’s more than 83 times the amount donated in the past, when the program averaged only 800 pounds per season.
“It’s something we’re encouraged about,” Crider said. “We’re hopeful the support will continue. But I most want to thank the hunters who were so generous, because without them we really wouldn’t have anything.”
Crider, a former DNR director, set up the fund in 2008, but for six years it was only run by donations, and few hunters knew the program existed. His 2013 bill gave the program the financial backing it needed, Crider said, and he hopes donations will continue to rise.
While this year’s program paid for 266,860 quarter-pound meals, there’s enough money in the fund to pay for 500,000 meals, Crider added.
Whether local residents are benefiting from the program is unclear. There are no food processors in Hancock County that are participating in the program.
While officials at the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen and the Hancock County Food Pantry say they offer venison to their clients, they can’t pinpoint whether donations are up this year.
“I think it’s a good thing to have and a good thing for sportsmen if they have extra venison that they donate it to those that need it,” said Tom Ferguson, president of the Hancock County Food Pantry. “But to actually give you facts and figures and numbers as to how it might have helped us, I just don’t have those.”
Still, Ferguson said whenever they have venison available, people snatch it up. Judy Crist, assistant at the soup kitchen, said they mix donated venison with other meats in soups, spaghetti and more.
Crider said the donations of venison this year were surprising, given the overall harvest of deer was down about 8 percent. He hopes the DNR can promote the program even more for the 2014-15 hunting season.
“It’s one of those things that always seems to be the most dependent on having a stable source of funding, so you can assure the hunters there will be money there to pay for the processing if they’re willing to donate,” Crider said. “It’s a good start; it’s about half where we want to be. But all in all, I’m very pleased to think that number of meals were provided.”