COLUMBUS, Ohio — Food banks and pantries around the country said high peanut butter prices have made it harder for them to provide one of their most-requested items — and a favorite among children — this holiday season.
Peanut butter prices have gone up 30 percent or more because hot weather 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 said they're serving more clients even as the poor economy has made it harder to get donations.
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," Shannon said. "I would anticipate if the prices continue to go up, we're going to have to take a hard look at it."
Peanut butter is popular at such agencies because it's a child-friendly source of protein with 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 like the Broad Street Food Pantry near downtown Columbus, which started limiting the largest families to two jars instead of three— if it's available.
When that happens, the clients notice, pantry manager Kathy Kelly-Long said: "Why isn't it here? Why don't you have peanut butter? We always get peanut butter."
But with a jar of peanut butter running about $3 or $4 at grocery stores, food banks said 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.
Christa Hendricks, a client and volunteer at a West Side Ecumenical Ministry food center in Cleveland, has two children who are both peanut-butter eaters. But she said if there are alternatives that food banks could buy more cheaply and in larger quantities, she'd support that decision.
"If there's something that's sustainable that is half the cost of that, I'd rather have that," said Hendricks, 39.
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. The food bank hoped to increase production from about eight to 12 loads annually, but higher prices could hamper that plan.
Food banks said higher food prices also have led to less peanut butter and other foods being available through U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity programs, in which the government buys surpluses of certain items to help balance supply and demand and makes them available to schools and nonprofits.
The national hunger-relief charity Feeding America anticipates it could distribute half as many commodities this fiscal year as it did in the one that ended June 30, spokeswoman Maura Daly said.
The USDA did not respond to requests for comment.
The American Peanut Council, an industry trade group, estimated that the average U.S. consumer eats 6 pounds of peanut products annually and that the market is worth more than $2 billion at the retail level. It's keeping an eye on how prices affect charities that depend on peanut butter.
"We'll probably do some work over the next year to try to get consumers to help out," said Stephanie Grunenfelder, vice president for international marketing. "It's always the poor who suffer the most when prices are high, unfortunately. Even though peanut butter is going to be more expensive, it's still a pretty economical protein source for people that are struggling to get by."