The Story of Arlington’s ‘Peanut Butter Grandma’

Ruth Desmond was a homemaker and a pioneering consumer advocate.

Illustration by Alice Kresse

Some might call it one of the stickiest legal battles in American history. After more than a decade of sparring with the FDA over what qualified as “peanut butter,” a consortium of food manufacturers—the Jifs, Peter Pans and Skippys of the world—came to Washington, D.C., in November 1965 to face off against the U.S. government.

At issue was the exact percentage of peanuts required for a product to bear the “peanut butter” label. Many executives took the stand in a series of hearings that lasted weeks, but it was Ruth G. Desmond, head of the Arlington-based Federation of Homemakers, whose voice stood out.

Polite, but brutally honest and known for her one-liners, Desmond attended every one of the so-called “Peanut Butter Hearings,” arguing that peanut butter should be exactly what the name implied—chock full of its namesake nut—whereas certain manufacturers were making a substance that, in her estimation, was more akin to “peanut-flavored cold cream.”

She felt compelled to attend the hearings, she told newspaper reporters, because, “I cannot leave them alone, those lawyers.”

It wasn’t long before the press had given the acerbic lady in the flowered hats and white gloves the nickname “Peanut Butter Grandma.” At the conclusion of the hearings, the courts agreed with the FDA and Peanut Butter Grandma. Food companies appealed the decision, but in 1971 it was finally published that a product had to be composed of at least 90 percent peanuts to be called peanut butter. Desmond had fought the powerful peanut butter industry and won.

Peanut butter wasn’t her first fight. A pioneering consumer advocate, Desmond had co-founded the nonprofit Federation of Homemakers in 1959, setting up an office on North Stuart Street in Arlington after learning that her husband’s bladder cancer may have been caused by pesticide residue. The Federation would issue its first public statement that year in response to the “Cranberry Crisis,” when a batch of the fruit was thought to be contaminated with a dangerous chemical weed killer.

In the years that followed, Desmond and the Federation took on a variety of other causes—from misleading hot dog labeling and nitrates in baby food to chloroform in kids’ toothpaste—and they often succeeded in their push for tighter regulations and transparency in consumer products. “They thought we’d go back to [playing] bridge,” Desmond said of her corporate adversaries, “but we didn’t.”

Desmond died in 1988 at the age of 82 and is buried alongside her husband, Gordon, a World War II and Korean War veteran, at Arlington National Cemetery. But her legacy lives on.

“She was one of those wonderful people…who takes a particular area of concern and laser-beam focuses on it for change that affects everyone,” consumer advocate and former presidential hopeful Ralph Nader said in a statement.

Were the fiery activist still alive today, she surely would have “embraced today’s social-media culture,” says FDA historian Suzanne Junod, “and would be blogging, tweeting and using Facebook to voice her opinions.” With plenty of great one-liners.

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Categories: Local History