The great peanut butter crunch of 1981 is upon us.

"I always thought of peanut butter as the poor man's meat," lamented Joli Kemp, 30-year-old Takoma Park mother, graduate student and short-order sandwich maker for a neighborhood of peanut butter eaters. "The price of peanut butter now is ridiculous."

At a Safeway in Arlington, a typical 18-ounce jar of Peter Pan peanut butter was selling for $2.25 last week, a 116 percent increase over the national average reported by the Food Marketing Institute of Washington 18 months ago.

But for many Washington area shoppers, finding a jar at any price isn't easy. Stocks of peanut butter are down more than 30 percent in this area, according to store owners, and some supermarket shelves are peanut butterless. Safeway has signs in all of its area stores apologizing for the scarcity. The headline: "The Sad Story of Peanut Butter."

"I'm trying to think of something cheaper; nothing's cheaper," says Harriet Koplan, a Fairfax County mother of four boys who spreads peanut butter thickly. "All I know is when my kindergartener Adam comes home from school with the kids from across the street, peanut butter is all he wants to eat."

Not all peanut butter lovers have remained faithful during the spread's price rise. Frances Armstrong cut short her 11-year-old son Eric's peanut butter habit four months ago when the price of an 18 oz. jar broke the $2 mark.

"It will be a very special occasion now when he gets a peanut butter sandwich," said Mrs. Armstrong, shopping with her son at a District supermarket.

On 17th Street NW, 11-year-old Larry Santa Cruz was crying into his brown lunch bag over the changing nature of school sandwiches.

"The price of peanut butter went up so much I can't get none," said the fifth grader at H. D. Cooke Elementary school. "Now I get bologna," he said with a grimace.

"This is the first time I've seen peanut butter, on the shelf for weeks," said Mary Frances Cooper, a grayhaired shopper in a District Safeway. "But when I looked at the price, I said the heck with it. It looks like one of our ways of life has gone up in smoke."

The drought and fungus that devastated last year's peanut crop in many areas of the country also has peanut farmers and industry middlemen singing the economic blues.

"The situation is very, very pitiful," says Russell Schools, executive director of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association. "Everybody is just crying.

Virginia, which is the fifth largest peanut producing state in the nation, grew only half as many peanuts this year as last. State agriculture officials estimate that the total loss to Virginia's economy will be $100 million.

"People who are 90 years old here say they've never seen anything like it," says Harvey Pope, owner of the family run Hancock Peanut Company in Southhampton County, where 31,000 of the state's 104,000 peanut acres are planted. "Things are pretty depressed around here."

The people who speak for the peanut industry, however, claim that peanut butter sales have remained surprisingly strong throughout the price rise. Peanut butter sandwiches, they boast, are still America's favorite lunch.

"We were waiting to see at what point people would stop buying peanut butter," says Mitch Head, spokesman for the Peanut Advisory Board, a coalition of growers from Georgia, Florida and Alabama. "We're still waiting.

Meanwhile, James Mack, the counsel for the Peanut Butter and Nut Processors Association and the National Confectioners Association, which together claim to use 98 percent of the edible peanuts grown in this country, has been firing broadsides at the federal government since the peanut crunch began last summer.

In a brief filed with the Federal Trade Commission last winter, Mack wrote that he was "unable to recall a more gross and incompetent handling of an important governmental matter than the inaction of the Department of Agriculture concerning peanuts."

Mack and the peanut people he represents asked Agriculture to lift import restrictions on foreign peanuts. Agriculture officials considered the request for three months. By the time they agreed to allow the import of 200 million pounds of peanuts, complains Mack, the international market was almost bought out. As of last week, only 60 million pounds of peanuts had been imported, at triple the price domestic farmers received last fall.

"Somebody's making a killing, and I know the farmer's not getting any of it," said Virginia peanut farmer Carlton Butler last week at the annual meeting of the Virginia Peanut Growers' Association. The group threatened a peanut strike this growing season if they couldn't get higher prices for their crop.

Last October the Department of Agriculture stopped buying peanut butter for federal school lunch programs. But many parents are finding that even at $2.23 a pound, peanut butter is not an easy habit to kick.

"I have to keep buying peanut butter for Andy," says Joli Kemp, who admits a low-keyed passion for the stuff herself. "When you're in grade school what else do you eat?"