ATLANTA -- The average shopper is not the only one to feel pinch caused by the increased cost of peanut butter. The nation's soup kitchens and food banks have been especially hard hit.
Last December, the federal government stopped buying peanut butter for distribution to millions of needy people nationwide, causing a hardship among social agencies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service cited drought-driven high prices as its reason for suspending purchases of peanut butter and began distributing cheese instead.
This year, however, favorable weather has forecasters predicting a bumper crop. Prices of peanut butter have already begun to drop slightly.
At the Department of Agriculture, Darlene Barnes, spokeswoman for the Food and Nutrition Service, said that the agency was "looking at" the possibility of resuming purchases of peanut butter, but she could not provide further details.
The Food and Nutrition Service, with an annual budget of $27.5 million, supplies food for 13 federal programs, including the school lunch program that feeds 24 million children daily. The Women and Infants and Children program feeds 4.5 million annually, and the Nutrition Program for the Elderly serves 930,000 meals daily.
Some advocates for the needy are skeptical that the government will resume delivering peanut butter soon.
"We have been led to believe we will not be seeing it for some time," said Doris Bloch, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which supplies agencies that feed more than 250,000 people a week.
Bloch complained that, "Our services benefit the people on the bottom of the economic list, but we're on the bottom of the federal government's list."
Officials of groups that feed the needy nationwide complain that cheese is a poor substitute because it is less nutritious, more difficult to store and requires refrigeration. Moreover, say the officials, the supply of government cheese was much smaller than the peanut butter it replaced.
In Atlanta, Kathy Palumbo, community services director for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said that her organization last year received five truckloads of peanut butter. But the group, which serves 560 agencies feeding 300,000 people a month, has only received a half-truckload of cheese since the peanut butter supply was cut off.