For weeks, something had been missing.
A staple in just about every living establishment in the nation, whose bountifulness was taken for granted until suddenly, it was gone.
Colleges across the country were searching desperately for any small amount, but were still forced to ration it between their hungry students.
It was mayhem.
It was the peanut butter crisis of 1980.
A massive drought in August caused massive amounts of peanut plants to wither in the fields, causing a huge decline in peanut production for the upcoming year. That year was the worst farmers had seen in generations, according to “Creamy and Crunchy: and Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food,” a publication in Columbia Scholarship Online by Jon Krampner. With crops drying in the sun, the lack of moisture gave-way to a new issue: fungus. A carcinogenic mold that can affect peanuts, aflatoxin, thrives in dry weather. This mold spread from the decaying peanuts and infected 15 percent of the surviving crops.
Krampner’s publication reported that Jim Andrews, who grew peanuts on his 400-acre farm in Georgia, could normally harvest 900 tons of peanuts from his fields; in 1980, however, his crop was only 100 tons. “I didn’t even make enough peanuts to pay the rent,” he said. Krampner’s publication reported that Andrews was projecting a loss of $300,000 for that year. “It seems like I’m about wiped out,” Andrews said.
The cost of peanuts skyrocketed, quadrupling in price from 30 to 40 cents per pound, to $1.50 per pound. The U.S. peanut crop would eventually reach a 46 percent shortage, according to Krampner’s publication.
By the start of 1981, the nation’s supply of peanut butter had all but run out, as predicted by Peter Rogers, senior vice president of Standard Brands’ Planters Peanuts division, in a Washington Post article from November, 1980.
In January, 1981, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) had raised the peanut import quota to 400 million pounds, but it still wasn’t enough, according to Krampner’s publication. People everywhere in the U.S. were affected by the shortage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture switched from peanut butter to cheese for school lunch sandwiches. Regular citizens had to cut back as well, Krampner quoted 23-year-old Sue Lanoue of Boston saying, “We’ll just eat eggs until the price goes down.” Florence Fabricant, another person quoted in Krampner’s publication, suggested consumers could “extend their precious peanut butter supply by mixing it in a blender with tofu, or by stirring it in with plain yogurt at a ratio of one part yogurt to two parts peanut butter.” She also suggested mixing creamy peanut butter corn flakes to stretch it out and make it feel like crunchy peanut butter.
A February 1981, publication of The Equinox stated, “Finding peanut butter is a task to stretch the resources and imagination of the most able college food service director these days.” The article also included a statement from Dining Commons Manager William Potter. He said that the D.C. was only getting two cases a week from its supplier and so servings would be rationed and not available at all meals.
Abbygail Vasas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org