A local Missouri senator's bill proposes to allow food pantries to receive and distribute deer meat jerky, and anti-hunger advocates said that could help food banks meet the constant challenge of being able to provide enough protein, especially to children who receive weekend meal packs.
Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, has filed Senate Bill 662 this legislative session, which would change the definition of "shelf stable packaged food" to allow for venison to be donated as frozen meat or as jerky.
The meat would still have to be processed in accordance with existing food regulations, Bernskoetter said.
"This would allow (venison) to be frozen or packaged," instead of being donated as only frozen and packaged, Tyler Schwartze testified in favor of Bernskoetter's bill in committee last week.
Schwartze is the executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, which teams up with the Missouri Department of Conservation to administer Missouri's Share the Harvest program.
Share the Harvest lets deer hunters donate extra venison to food pantries through meat processors.
Since 1992, when Share the Harvest began, the program has provided more than 4 million pounds of venison, according to a news release last fall from MDC.
Schwartze also suggested to the Senate's Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources committee — which Bernskoetter chairs — that jerky could be used in food banks' buddy pack programs for children.
That's something the lobbyist for Feeding Missouri also said in her testimony in favor of the bill.
Feeding Missouri is the advocacy coalition of the six Missouri food banks, which includes the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri that serves the Jefferson City and wider Mid-Missouri area.
Scott Baker, Feeding Missouri's state director, later told the News Tribune that protein is a constant need for the state's food banks.
"Protein is very expensive to acquire. It's hard for us to get our hands on. That's why it's a need throughout the year. It's not one of the more donated products," Baker said.
"There are certainly times when folks will go to the local food pantries, and there's just no meat available," he said.
As an example of how quickly food banks go through what meat they get, it was announced in December that Feeding Missouri would be provided up to 73,000 pounds of pork.
Baker said that was all distributed within a week.
There are alternative protein sources to animal meat. "Peanut butter is certainly a common item that you'll find in the (children's) backpack program," Baker said. "There's rarely any kind of meat product or thing like that to help supplement the peanut butter."
Backpack programs help provide children with nutritious meals on weekends, when they don't have access to meals at school. He said more than 25,000 such packs are distributed across the state every weekend during the school year.
"The food that you put in there has to be packaged in a way that a kid can handle it," such as a fruit cup a child can open without a can opener, Baker said.
That could make a pack of jerky an accessible way for a child, or anyone, to have a protein source.
Roasted deer meat has fewer calories than beef, pork or fried chicken that has the skin on, and it contains more protein — though deer meat also contains more cholesterol — according to nutrition information presented at a deer processing class the News Tribune attended last fall at Runge Nature Center
"It would certainly be more convenient product," Baker said, adding the hope would be that allowing for jerky donations of venison would help grow Share the Harvest to bring in more donations overall.
For the time being, he said, it's difficult to quantify how much jerky could have been produced with how much venison has been harvested in previous deer seasons, and many children's backpack meals that could have benefited.
Baker said Share the Harvest can track how many pounds of venison was donated in each county, but they're trying to improve tracking beyond that.
Deer hunting season is in the fall and winter, and the protein would be needed year-round. Baker said finding space on food bank shelves should not be an issue.
"I think that that's a product we would turn around pretty quickly," he said. But he did not yet know how long the shelf-life for venison jerky would be.
Participating Share the Harvest meat processors can be found at mdc.mo.gov/share. People interested in Share the Harvest venison should contact local food banks or food pantries.
There's been no further action on Bernskoetter's bill since last week's committee hearing.