CRESTVIEW — The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences' annual Peanut Butter Challenge has come to an end, with communities donating over 20,000 pounds of the product in Florida.

Those donations include a matching 11,340 pounds from the Florida Peanut Producers Association, according to a media release from the UF IFAS Gainesville office.

Ken Barton, FPPA executive director, thanked Peanut Proud for helping FPPA buy peanut butter below retail cost.

"The Peanut Butter Challenge is a wonderful program that creates a friendly competition between county Extension offices and everyone involved, while providing local food pantries with much-needed protein, in the form of peanut butter," Barton said.

Residents and organizations in the Northwest Florida region contributed 508 jars of the product, which came to 587.71 pounds total, according to Jennifer Bearden of the UF IFAS Okaloosa Extension office in Crestview. This was more than double last year's donations of 227 jars.

"Basically extension offices across the panhandle collect peanut butter to donate to local food pantries. The donation is matched by the Florida Peanut Producers," Bearden said.

"Peanut butter is the only item we collect. We chose peanut butter because it is a commodity that we grow here and it is a very nutritious thing to hand out at food pantries."

Extension office employees distributed some jars to local families during their Farm-City Week outreach in November. The rest will be split among the Sharing and Caring food pantries in Fort Walton Beach, Crestview and Niceville, as well as the Holt Community Food Pantry.

Volunteer Ron Porter, of the Fort Walton Beach Sharing and Caring, said peanut butter is the facility's most expensive food need.

"It's my largest budget expenditure. Peanut butter goes into every bag of food we distribute. I have to buy 20 cases a week, and sometimes I still wind up buying additional regular jars for individual (needs)," he said.

Holt pantry director Donna Ash said the pantry's shelves were emptied Dec. 13 after distributing food to families needing assistance.

The First Baptist Church of Holt organization has seen an increase in the numbers of people they serve since the Thanksgiving holidays.

"We usually have 20 families a week, and every Wednesday, different families show up. We've doubled our usage of the pantry to 40 families a week … Probably eight families were turned away and we told them they can come back next Wednesday. We will have some stores refreshed by then, but with the holidays we've seen such an influx of new people," she said.

The Holt pantry distributes four Wednesdays a month from 9 a.m. to noon, and families can get food from the pantry once a month.

Ash said the majority of the pantry's donations, 75-80 percent, come from the community and particularly businesses. Those who wish to donate may drop items off at the facility during open house on Wednesdays, or contact the church for pick-up.

"CHS Leadership and Baker Leadership students have both donated this year and we go and pick up from them. The new Publix donated bread and bakery items to us weekly so we're able to get fresh bread, and then we go down to the Feeding America site (formerly the Bay Area Food Bank, near Milton), and we purchase every Tuesday 1,000 to 1,100 pounds of food," Ash said.

Donations they prefer include canned vegetables, peanut butter and jelly, and rice and beans.

"We love to be able to have that in every bag that goes out, and of course any farmers that have fresh vegetables, we take that," she said.

Other popular foods include canned items that children like to eat, such as spaghetti and ravioli.

Ash encourages people to donate to food pantries in their area.

"Most of us are so blessed and to see so many families hungry right here among us is sad. I just would like everybody to open their hearts and their wallets and contribute to their food banks near them," she said.