Thursday, March 24, 2011

Peanut Butter News

One of the excuses big government types give for having to take our money and give it to others, is because there’s no other way. But there are nongovernmental solutions, and I saw one of them in action yesterday. I attended the rededication (following a renovation that began last June) of the peanut butter cannery in northwest Houston, run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many people from the community were invited to attend (so many came that it was standing room only for the ceremony), because this is a place where the whole community serves.

The cannery was built in the early 1980s, intended to supply peanut butter as part of the Church’s welfare program, and also to be used for humanitarian aid. The cannery is one of many food production facilities throughout the US and Canada intended for these purposes worldwide.
In 2003 the cannery became even more. A year earlier Larry Talley, a Latter-day Saint as well as an employee at that time at Exxon-Mobil, got this brainstorm one day about the cannery. It was used only for 48-hour shifts, manned by Church-member volunteers, about 11 times a year, producing for the Church’s distribution needs. What about all those other days when it wasn’t being used? What if we could produce peanut butter for the Houston Food Bank on some of those off days? He made the proposal, I believe combining input from the local Church leadership running the cannery, the Houston Food Bank, and his company’s HR department (for the volunteer labor). The agreement was that the Church would provide the jars, lids, extra ingredients, and use of the machinery; the Houston Food Bank would gather donations to fund the purchase of the peanuts, and community organizations would staff the volunteer crews. In early 2003 the first Houston Food Bank labeled peanut butter was produced, and the project has been providing about 98,000 jars a year, at a cost to the food bank of about 60% of the cost of commercial peanut butter.

The peanut butter shifts were somewhat limited by the equipment. Once started up, they had to run pretty much continually until the run was completed, because the cleaning process was involved (using I think I was told about 40 gallons of oil—but I may be remembering that wrong) and somewhat expensive. So Houston Food Bank sessions were always tagged onto the day before the Church’s scheduled weekend sessions. The renovation has enlarged the capacity significantly. There’s a new roaster—now in a separate building from the canning process—the entire housing for which was added on to the building. Sorting is now done by laser, rather than by dizzying eyes working at a conveyor belt. Everything is faster. Instead of 4000 jars per 4-hour shift, the cannery can produce 4800. This year the project will produce 250,000 jars for food banks in Houston and across Texas. Houston Food Bank distributes at no cost to 300 relief agencies.

A crew of 16 can now handle the task that used to take 25 volunteers. All the labor is provided by community volunteers, from corporations, various church congregations, sports teams, and any organization or family (ages must be 16 and up). I’m told the entire schedule for this year is already full. People really enjoy this as a project. Corporations use it for team building. Other groups do it as a service project. You get training in a 30-minute (or less) session prior to starting on the line, to cover health and safety issues. And you trade jobs throughout your session, working variously at stations that line up the jars ready for the extruder, place lids on jars ahead of the sealer, control the label machine, or pack and seal the jars in boxes. It’s assembly line work, and you might not want to do it every day, but as a field trip, it’s pretty fun. And satisfying. You can see the 4800 jars you just helped produce—that will go directly to people who really need it. (And you get to take one home with you!)

During the dedication ceremony, Briane Greene, President of the Houston Food Bank, talked about how the peanut butter is used. This peanut butter is not just for the food insecure. It’s used for the Backpack Buddy Program—a weekend pack of food for children showing symptoms of chronic hunger. The program is in 200 schools, and peanut butter is the most requested product. It’s a protein food that doesn’t need refrigeration or cooking, with a shelf life up to three years. But, mainly, kids like it.

He said that there was some anxiety among the kids as Christmas approached. They realized the kids were worried about going all the way through the holidays without getting food from school. So they stocked up the schools with extra to make sure the kids had food through the Christmas break.

Larry Talley was quoted on the brochure handed out, saying, “The need for peanut butter is tremendous. If we could make more through additional funding and volunteers, the Houston Food Bank would distribute more, up to ten times more.”

Church leader Gifford Nielsen (yes, the Gifford Nielsen who had a long career as a sportscaster in Houston) talked a little about the Church’s welfare farms and canneries. He grew up in an area where the Church owned fruit tree farms. He recalled going out there with his dad, following directions to help pick up branches after the adults pruned the trees. And later in the summer they would go back and pick apples, placing them carefully first in sacks around their necks, and then gently into crates.

The peanuts for this project are grown on a Church-owned farm in Pearsall, Texas. Church member volunteers from in and around San Antonio take turns working on the farm. The variety of peanut is only grown in central and west Texas, and it has the highest content of Omega 3 fatty acids. So it is more nutritious than other varieties of peanuts. The Church doesn’t own shelling equipment, so it sells the peanuts to Wilco Shelling Company, and then buys them as needed throughout the year.

2000-lb. bags of shelled peanuts

The walls around the roaster are filled floor to ceiling with 2000-lb. bags of shelled peanuts—with about 1.8 pounds going into each jar. They said that supply could be used up in 2-3 days of canning.

Nielsen mentioned the Church’s welfare policy, from 1936 (during the Great Depression): “Our primary purpose was to set up, insofar as possible, a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of the dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift, and self-respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the Church is to help people to help themselves.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has one of the most extensive welfare systems anywhere to help its membership in times of need. A tour of the facility beyond the cannery section showed what looked like a supermarket, a place where those in need of temporary help receive their groceries and household supplies. Many of the products have labels showing they were produced on Church farms and canneries. The congregation leader, the Bishop, knows each person in his congregation and signs a list of their needs that get filled in this Bishop’s Storehouse. So, the Church really knows how to take care of its own.

Another section of the facility is a staging area for disaster relief. When a hurricane is on the way to the Gulf Coast Region, tractor-trailers are loaded up days ahead and put on route to this facility, where basic food, water, and supplies like tarps, generators, and chainsaws, are sent to be in place as soon as the storm hits. The Church often arrives with relief on the scene before the Red Cross.

All of this humanitarian aid, both for the Church members, and for the wider community, is completely paid for by member donations (beyond the tithing members also pay) to the Church’s Humanitarian Services Fund.

Gifford Nielsen talked for a minute about miracles that happen through this peanut butter project:  “Through the efforts of many, miracles will take place. Some we’ll know, and some we’ll have no idea…. We bless others, but we really save ourselves.”  I felt inspired, almost tearful, when he added, “The greatest miracle can happen within us as we serve.” All of us there--we wanted those miracles to keep happening.

This is my theory about a civilized society (above the 45th parallel on the Spherical Model). There will be poor, and people in temporary or even long-term need. A civilized people will surround them with help, to get them through the tough times, allowing those who serve to also serve others, so they maintain their self-respect. This is charity, in the best sense, where giver and receiver both benefit. This kind of miracle can’t be accomplished through government coercion. Using tax dollars to redistribute wealth makes the giver feel deprived of the will to give, and makes the receiver feel entitled without work.

Peanut Butter's gourmet side

When I’m at that cannery, I feel the love, the miracles, that happen there. And I have faith that this kind of example could spread.


  1. This is a really nice, well written and informative article about a wonderful program that has helped so many.