Peanut butter is the No. 1 requested item from the Houston Food Bank and one of the top three for Feeding America because it is high in protein and nutritious, doesn’t require refrigeration and can be eaten right out of the jar.
Plus, a 6-year-old child likely knows how to make a peanut butter sandwich.
Jim Robin is a member of the community who has volunteered at least 20 shifts at the peanut butter cannery owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Houston, Texas.
Peanut butter production is a project the community values, he said. “The way companies and organizations look at this, it’s a great way to get people together to do something worthwhile for the community and to bond closer to their coworkers.”
Robin was first introduced to the peanut butter project through his employer, ExxonMobil, one of many companies who volunteers with the cannery. He retired from ExxonMobil in 2017, “but that didn’t end my commitment to this program,” he told the Church News.
Working closely with the cannery’s corporate liaison and community relations coordinator, Robin has helped maintain the volunteer schedule for several years.
“It’s like a second home to me,” Robin said of the cannery. “I feel part of that community even though I don’t belong to the Church. … It gives me purpose and meaning in life, which to me is the most important thing.”
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the community volunteer workforce in recent months, local Church members and missionaries have continued to fill in on the production line — helping the cannery to produce an estimated 1.97 million pounds of peanut butter in 2020 to help those in need.
Since the early 2000s, the peanut butter cannery has partnered with dozens of local and national humanitarian organizations. Many send volunteers for production shifts. In 2017, the cannery began nationwide distribution with Feeding America. Organizations have usually paid for the cost of the peanuts while the Church provides the peanut butter.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church has been realigning and simplifying its relationships with humanitarian organizations — and expanding donations.
For those involved with the peanut butter cannery, for example, “we will continue the valued partnership with humanitarian organizations to help with donations, with the Church expanding its financial contribution to cover all production costs,” said David Park, manager of business processes in the Church’s Welfare and Self-Reliance Department.
A total of 30,000 boxes of peanut butter for humanitarian organizations and 40,000 boxes for bishops’ storehouses are slated for 2021, said Peter Polis, cannery manager.
The Church’s peanut butter story
The peanut butter cannery is a 11,000-square-foot facility located in a larger Church welfare and self-reliance complex in a residential area in North Houston. The complex includes a bishops’ storehouse, home storage center and welfare center as well as Family Services and Employment Services. A stake center and the Texas Houston Mission office are also close by.
Most people driving by likely don’t know that the facility includes a peanut butter plant, Polis said.
“In fact, we’ve had people walk in unexpectedly, just wondering what that roasty smell is and what we do here,” he said. “They’re always interested when we say we don’t sell our peanut butter, only to the people that help to make it. All of it goes toward caring for those in need.”
The peanuts have been grown on a Church welfare farm near San Antonio since 1973, but the Church’s peanut butter operation traces back even further — to the early 1950s.
The original peanut butter cannery was located in an old, dilapidated theater in Baytown, about 30 miles southeast of Houston. The building was donated to the Church by Howard E. Brunson, a local Latter-day Saint. Peanuts were purchased from a commercial market.
After almost 30 years of operation, a new, modern cannery was built in its current location in the early 1980s. It has seen drastic equipment and process upgrades over the years.
During a major renovation that closed the plant from 1993-1994, the process switched from using cans to plastic jars and an inline cooler was added to cool the product before filling jars — an operation that greatly enhanced the quality of the peanut butter. An induction sealer was also added.
The cannery was enlarged in 2010 with a 6,000-square-foot building to house a new continuous belt roaster, raw-peanut storage, shop and orientation room for the cannery.
A rotary capper to automatically apply lids to jars was installed in 2018, helping eliminate jar tipping and repetitive-motion pain (like carpal tunnel) caused by hand application.
“It used to be a much more manual process,” said Elder Charles Steinmetz, a senior missionary coordinator in the Houston area who has volunteered at the cannery for the last 20 years. He and his wife, Sister Sharolyn Steinmetz, currently serve as a liaison between Polis and local stakes to communicate staffing needs at the cannery.
“There was actually a point in time where roasted peanuts would come by you on a conveyor, and they had volunteers on either side, picking out the burned peanuts,” he said. “Now a lot of that is automated with different process equipment. And they continue to make upgrades there so they can increase the volume of peanut butter that they make.”
In the year 2000, about 250,000 jars of peanut butter were produced. In 2020, Polis estimates the cannery’s production will total 1.65 million jars. (This summer, the cannery began producing only 16-ounce jars instead of both 28-ounce and 16-ounce jars).
How it’s made
Peanut butter is currently made every two weeks on Fridays and Saturdays. Volunteers — dressed in aprons, hair nets, gloves and ear plugs — are rotated through various stations during a four-hour shift.
Tasks include loading bagged peanuts into the roaster; removing bags of peanut skins and hearts from the blancher and sorter; adding salt, sugar and stabilizer to the mixer; loading empty jars onto the line; monitoring the jar capper; inspecting seals to ensure they are tight; and packing boxes with finished jars. Quality is inspected at every station.
Each jar of peanut butter has a “best if used by” of three years. Following their shift, each volunteer receives a jar of peanut butter to take home.
The Church’s peanut butter operation isn’t really about peanut butter, Polis said. “Everything we do here is service. … One of our goals here is that people leave the facility feeling better than they did when they came.”
During a production run on Oct. 23, companions Elder Carlos Andres Del Toro and Elder Keegan Hardy of the Texas Houston Mission worked together to box jars of peanut butter and stack them on pallets for shipping — and raced to see who could do it faster.
“We’ve been to many food banks here in Texas and at a lot of the food banks, we see the peanut butter that has been produced by the Church,” said Elder Hardy, from Holladay, Utah. “It’s incredible to see what type of outreach this has and what type of assistance we can give to those in need.”
Elder Del Toro, from Chiapas, Mexico, who is deaf and communicated with sign language through his companion, added, “This is God helping and supporting and loving others. This is a very simple way that we can support the Lord in this effort.”
A missionary tool
As Church members living in Houston, Elder and Sister Steinmetz said they have found peanut butter to be “a terrific missionary tool.” The first step is to get people to taste it.
“We have some ardent fans now in our circle of friends that are not members that just love the Church peanut butter,” Elder Steinmetz said.
“When our stake has an assignment, they’ll come with us on the shift and get a chance to see firsthand the welfare arm of the Church in operation. … They begin to see that we’re not just ‘talking the talk’ — we’re ‘walking the walk’ when it comes to following the Savior and doing what He would do.”
Elder Steinmetz encouraged Houston members to volunteer at the cannery when their stake is given the assignment. “If it’s not the cannery, reach out and serve in some other way. … That’s what it’s all about.”
“Service really does touch hearts, bring peace to troubled hearts and strengthens resolve to improve your own life,” Sister Steinmetz added. “And it’s an amazing healer when you serve.”