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Donate your deer to feed the hungry

As hunters prepare to head into the woods for the start of this year's Minnesota Firearms Deer Hunting season this weekend, chances are not all of them will be anticipating the thought of a savory venison roast gracing the dining room table. Others may simply end up with more venison than they can use. A program developed through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) makes it possible for hunters to donate their venison to help feed fellow Minnesotans in need of a little extra food on the table and more protein in their diets.

The venison donation program pairs participating hunters with MDA-authorized meat processors, who then pass along the processed venison to Minnesota food shelves.

Locally, state-registered processor Jim Gamache of Gamache and Sons Meat Processing in Esko has already had some 12-15 donated deer brought in for processing since the start of the archery season in September.

"Judging by that, I'd say we're pretty much on track for the year," he said.

When all is said and done, by the conclusion of the firearms season Gamache said most past years have yielded some 40 deer to be donated to the Northern Food Bank/Second Harvest program.

Gamache said donated deer must be legally harvested and properly field dressed. MDA guidelines state that the dressed deer should be dragged with the back or side down to minimize contamination of the meat, and the carcass should be kept cool during transport. If necessary to store it, it should be kept at a temperature of less than 41 degrees. The carcass should be rinsed with cold water prior to storage to remove debris and bacterial contamination, and when transporting the deer in a vehicle, the body cavity should be packed with ice to promote additional chilling. Hunters should allow for adequate air circulation around the carcass and keep it out of sunlight and warm temperatures.

The hunter then needs to simply to bring it to Gamache and Sons (or any other MDA-authorized processor in the state), sign a couple of papers indicating his or her willingness to participate in the venison donation program and attesting to their adherence to proper field dressing procedures, and then leave the deer carcass to be processed. Gamache stressed that in order to qualify, hunters must bring in the entire deer with the hide attached and not just portions of it.

"That's pretty much all there is to it," said Gamache. "We take it from there."

In order to become an authorized processor for the program, Gamache said he attended classes offered by the state, learning such things as what sorts of things to watch out for in donated deer in order to prevent the risk of food-borne illness.

Donated deer must be free from signs of illness; free of visible decomposition or contamination; and properly identified with a Minnesota DNR registration tag. Processors have the right to reject deer for donation that appear to be mishandled in any way that could compromise the quality of the meat.

Gamache said the processing business itself has to be certified and inspected annually by the MDA in order to participate. He said his family-owned business has taken part in the program since its inception.

The Minnesota legislature first funded the program to facilitate the donation of harvested deer to food shelves in 2007. According to the DNR, to pay for the program a one-time appropriation of $160,000 came from the general fund, and the cost of non-resident hunting licenses was increased by $5.

Continuation of the program is also funded by a $1 surcharge on deer bonus permits, which are anticipated to bring in approximately $160,000 a year. In addition, at the time a hunter purchases his or her license, they will be asked to consider donating $1, $3 or $5 to the program.

Not a hunter? You can also donate by visiting one of the 1,800 Electronic Licensing System agents statewide and tell them you want to help support the program.

There is no cost to a hunter to participate in the donation program, and the processors will be reimbursed $70 for each deer they deliver to the food shelf.

Last year, Minnesota hunters donated 421 deer to the program, which provided 15,520 pounds of processed venison to Minnesota food shelves.

Gamache and Sons is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the firearms deer hunting season, or you can call them at 218-878-1077 to make an appointment to donate a deer.

The Salvation Army Food Shelf in Cloquet is also accepting donated venison on an individual basis, which must be processed by a state-certified processor, wrapped in white butcher wrap and properly stored and refrigerated. For more information, contact the Salvation Army at 218-879-1693.