Food banks and pantries in Utah and nationwide say higher prices for peanut butter are making it harder for them to provide one of their most-requested items and a favorite among children this holiday season.
Costs have gone up 30 percent or more because poor weather conditions this summer in states such as Texas and Georgia hurt this year's peanut crop and because some farmers switched to more profitable crops, such as corn and cotton.
The increase in peanut butter prices and the cost of food overall has been a blow to family budgets, and hunger-relief groups that say they're serving more clients even as the poor economy has made it harder to get donations.
Salt Lake City's Utah Food Bank has on hand about 10,000 pounds of peanut butter, which will be distributed to 154 pantries throughout the state. But when that inventory runs low within the next 60 to 90 days, "we expect we'll have trouble replenishing our supplies" because of the costs, said the agency's chief marketing officer, Ginette Bott.
Bott doesn't anticipate any peanut butter shortages through the holidays, "because people remember to donate during that time," she said.
Typically, donations dwindle in January and February, however, "and we expect that our inventory of peanut butter will go down. We're also expecting to pay more" when it's time for us to buy.
Linda Trujillo, manager of the Utah Food Bank Southern Branch in St. George, said there's always a need for high-protein items, "and peanut butter is chief among them. [It's] popular with children, and it's also important for people who have no means to cook."
Terry Shannon, president of the Phoenix-based St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance, one of the country's largest food banks, said it increased the amount of food it distributes annually by about 75 percent over the past three years, to 74 million pounds. Its cash donations have kept pace with the need so far, but Shannon said he worries the alliance won't raise enough money during the holiday season to keep including peanut butter in each of the 25,000 emergency food boxes it distributes each month.
"That's probably the item we buy most frequently ... because we don't have enough of it donated" with prices so high, Shannon said.
Peanut butter also is popular at such agencies because it has a long shelf life, meets most religious restrictions on food and doesn't require special storage or cooking. Lately, it's sometimes absent from shelves at places such as the Broad Street Food Pantry near downtown Columbus, Ohio, which started limiting the largest families to two jars instead of three if it's available.
With a jar of peanut butter running about $3 or $4 at grocery stores, food banks say they expect to receive fewer donations, buy less, pay more for what they do buy and consider offering protein alternatives such as canned tuna or chicken, which might be comparatively good deals.
Food banks get cheaper prices by buying in bulk, but the higher cost is still noticeable. The Cleveland Foodbank in Northeast Ohio bought a truckload of peanut butter in June for $12.95 per dozen 18-ounce jars, but that rose to $18.31 by October. If peanut butter becomes nearly as expensive as some meats, the latter might provide more nutrition at nearly the same cost, food bank president and CEO Anne Goodman said.
The Houston Food Bank hopes to keep up its peanut butter distribution by working with a cannery run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The cannery provides the machinery, and the food bank provides the volunteers and pays for the peanuts a cost that could double to $36,000 for each tractor-trailer load that produces about 19,000 extra-large jars of peanut butter, president Brian Greene said.
Tribune reporter Dawn House contributed to this story