Every fall, from the beginning of October through the Thanksgiving holiday, Extension offices across the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend region ask the community to help them collect unopened jars of peanut butter in the annual Peanut Butter Challenge. In participating counties, church and civic groups along with 4-H clubs, challenge their members to donate and help collect peanut butter to contribute to the community effort. The more jars of peanut butter collected by a community, the greater the number of jars the community receives in a product match. All of the peanut butter is given to organizations that serve residents who face food insecurity in the local community.
How the Challenge Began?
The Northwest Florida Peanut Butter Challenge was launched by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Institute (UF/IFAS Extension) in partnership with the Florida Peanut Producers in 2012. The Florida Peanut Butter Federation joined the partnership a few years later, helping to expand the reach of the Challenge beyond the Florida Panhandle to the Big Bend and other counties throughout the peninsula. Commodity associations bring together agricultural producers from different growing regions in Florida. The Florida Peanut Producers Association and the Florida Peanut Federation represent the collective interests of peanut farmers at the state and federal level from their respective geographical regions.
The Challenge was initially designed to help ensure that area residents from Jefferson to Escambia counties in Florida’s Panhandle region could stock their pantries with a nutritious protein source that would appeal to the palates of adults and children alike and reduce food insecurity. The Challenge continues to grow and more counties throughout Florida join the Challenge every year expanding the reach to residents in need.
In 2020, the Challenge brought in over 10,000 jars of peanut butter which amounted to more than 15,000 pounds. The jars brought in by the Challenge generated a match donation from the peanut butter commodity associations. Through the match partnership, over 28,000 jars of peanut butter were distributed to food banks and school programs in local communities.
The Challenge Impact in Local Communities
In each of the participating local county Extension offices, UF/IFAS staff and faculty work to distribute the jars of peanut butter to local food banks and school backpack programs. Peanut butter is one of the most requested items at food banks. Peanut butter has a long shelf life, does not require refrigeration after it is opened, and has broad appeal to youth and adult palates.
The Challenge helps to support the efforts of organizations such as Second Harvest of the Big Bend. Annually, Second Harvest works across 11 counties to distribute over 11 million meals and more than 13 million pounds of food. The 2018 United Way of the Big Bend “ALICE” report, a study that provides data on the community members who meet the criteria of being “asset limited, income constrained, and employed,” showed that 54% of the area’s residents had difficulty affording the basic costs of living. Through collaborative partnerships we are able to support the needs in local communities.
Regional Partners Expand Reach Across State Lines
Since 2009, Peanut Proud (https://www.peanutproud.org/) has brought together peanut producers from eleven states to address food insecurity, respond to natural disasters, and provide international hunger relief. In October of 2018, in the weeks after Hurricane Michael devastated a swath of the Florida Panhandle, Peanut Proud worked with UF/IFAS Extension faculty and the Florida Peanut Federation to distribute over 70,000 jars of peanut butter into the ten counties impacted by the powerful Category Five storm.
With many local churches and food banks without power and numerous buildings damaged beyond repair, finding local partners with the capacity to receive and distribute items like peanut butter to get into the hands of hungry residents posed a daunting challenge. At the same time UF/IFAS faculty worked with Peanut Proud to distribute the peanut butter storm aid, Extension offices continued to reach out to the community to meet that year’s Challenge. The sustained relief effort yielded a peanut butter match that enabled UF/IFAS to deliver additional jars of peanut butter to local partners in December and January to meet the ongoing needs of local communities during long-term storm recovery.
The Challenge in the COVID19 Era
The Peanut Butter Challenge continued in the COVID19 era. While many groups moved to virtual activities and meetings during 2020, the Peanut Butter Challenge presented a service opportunity that could be accomplished while maintaining social distance. The Challenge was promoted with press releases, social media graphics, and blog posts. In some communities, radio stations donated PSA time to promote the Challenge.
Individuals of all ages and organizations ranging from Rotary International to church groups answered the call to collect and donate peanut butter. In some Extension offices, social media posts about the Peanut Butter Challenge yielded Amazon deliveries of boxes with dozens of peanut butter jars from across the nation.
The success of the 2020 Peanut Butter Challenge is a testament to Extension’s capacity to connect regional and multi-state partners to address community issues. The impact of this partnership illustrates how Extension leaders leverage relationships to develop solutions for clientele. The tenacity of Extension faculty who continue to serve local communities in the face of adverse conditions such as natural disasters or global pandemics is emblematic of their commitment to service.
Contributor: Rachel Pienta, PhD. Extension Agent II, UF/IFAS.