How Government Cheese Became Welfare For Farmers



government cheese you probably won't find it in anyone's fridge today but you might still catch glimpses of it in pop culture it made its way into iconic standup sets and SNL sketches it's become a signifier of urban poverty for artists from New York Philadelphia but the epicenter of government cheese actually rested in Kansas City Missouri the modest City stored four billion dollars worth of government cheese in capes and shipped millions of pounds of it all across the country when I was a kid and we used to get it it would come in these big brick type blocks and it's like dayglo orange you can't mistake it in the mid-80s at the height of the government cheese phenomenon there were roughly 1.2 billion pounds of surplus cheese in the u.s. that's a lot of cheese but we actually have more today than we did in 1984 but I'm getting ahead of myself the story of government cheese can be traced back to the same roots as food assistance programs like Snap today not in humanitarianism but in agriculture in the case of government cheese it all boiled down to milk prices people talk about food assistance programs as if they were created to help poor people out and you know yes that's true but almost all of the major food assistance programs were ideas that came from agriculture because we had too much of something so what happened to government cheese and could it make a comeback to understand how he got to the point where Martha Stewart and Snoop Dog are talking about it where do you buy government cheese you don't buy it you got to be on a special melody let's go back to the very start of American cheese in the 1850s in 1851 Jesse Williams opened the first American cheese factory in Rome New York in 1903 James L Kraft moved from Canada to the US and began selling cheese out of a wagon in Chicago a few years later he formed Crafton Brothers and in 1916 he filed his first patent for the process to create what we now know as American cheese I have discovered that cheese of the cheddar genus may be prevented from disintegrating under the action of heat and that cheese used up a lot of milk q the dairy farmers rural America represented over half of the population and farmers represented over half of rural America so there was a real sense that if you were helping out farmers you were helping out just a whole lot of the Great Depression rocked the milk market and the government stepped in to help control prices the USDA used a pricing index called the parity price formula basically if the price of milk dipped below what it cost to produce it the government would help cover the difference and that provided farmers with a peace of mind that their business wouldn't tank because of something like an economic depression or a war in 1949 Congress passed the agricultural act establishing a formal price support system for farmers and it's not just for cheese the government tries to keep a stable supply of agricultural commodities like wheat corn and dairy one way to do that is by buying up extra product that depression-era logic really just kind of continued up until about the 1980s there was always some event that that occurred that made you glad you had this program in place by the end of the 70s milk prices were all out of whack in 1977 President Carter's administration enacted a new subsidy that injected two billion dollars into the dairy market over the next four years suddenly it was very profitable to produce milk so farmers produced a lot of it so much milk there was nowhere to store it all before it spoiled it was turned into butter powdered milk and cheese and the government bought it up tons of it literally the government had so much excess dairy they didn't know what to do with it a lot of times when people talked about this they talked about the government buy and dairy products as if some guy was going down to the local Kroger's and picking up a cart full but in fact what they did is they simply put out an announcement we will buy these products and these prices anybody interested let us know in December 1981 President Reagan who earlier that year had pledged to scale back the food stamp program caved and said the US would distribute 30 million pounds of extra cheese to those in need with nonfat dry milk you can send that overseas and there's almost an unlimited potential to feed hungry people if you open it up to the world cheese has almost no feasible option to go overseas and so you had to do it domestically cheese is typically stored in bulk in forty five pound boxes or 500 pound barrels but giving out whiskey barrel sized cheese just isn't practical so manufacturers started processing it in smaller portions and from the warehouses of Kansas City and other stockpiles across the country boxes upon boxes of processed cheese were packaged up into five-pound blocks shipped across America and government cheese was born by 1984 the US was storing roughly five pounds of cheese for every American it got to the point where agencies would be going to like senior citizen centers with baskets of two-pound loaves of processed cheese and just handing them out the temporary emergency food assistance program said the cheese to food pantries school lunch programs and other organizations that could distribute the bricks of yellowy orange dairy substance it has a distinctive taste which people have described as like kind of a cheddar cheese whiz type of and it seems like people either loved it or hated it you know there is no middle ground something that started out with economic intentions had social and political consequences it was a staple of your childhood so there is a nostalgia about that similar to how a lot of people would feel about you know breakfast cereal or peanut butter and jelly but at the same time it's yet another aspect of life as a poor person that you had no control over so you got it whether you want it or not and you had no choice if you liked it or not this block of surplus dairy product became a neatly packaged symbol of economic status sitting in refrigerators across America by the 90s it wasn't profitable for dairy farmers to pump out so much milk in government cheese essentially disappeared you might still catch a reference to it on menus like wall burgers but today's American cheese probably isn't coming from Uncle Sam dairy farmers are struggling with low prices again but not because of an economic depression genetics technology and big farms have made milk production more efficient than ever before and consumer preferences are changing liquid milk consumption is down but cheese consumption is on the rise and we have a lot of cheese but Americans don't have the same desire for processed American cheese like they did in the 80s now it's all about specialty artisan cheeses which can turn a higher profit but they aren't as easy to make in mass so here we are dairy prices on edge millions of Americans living with food insecurity more than a billion pounds of extra cheese could government cheese be the answer the government actually did buy up 11 million pounds of surplus cheese back in 2016 and distributed it through welfare programs since 2016 the USDA has spent more than 47 million dollars buying up 22 million pounds of US surplus cheese there's also dependency argument of farmers getting too used to having the government step in and make surpluses go away at some point you start asking the question our farmers making milk just so they can sell it to some government program another place you may see that extra dairy pop up school lunches the Trump administration has been scaling back some nutrition regulations and school cafeterias and that's good news for the dairy industry 40 percent of milk consumption in the u.s. comes from kids 2 to 17 years old and with a higher sodium limit school kitchens can incorporate more cheese into their plates and there's certainly plenty to go around this notion of we're really good at making stuff and sometimes we make a little bit more than we know what to do it goes hand in hand with oh there's some people that really could use some help so you know you can argue that's a win-win but the people who are really concerned about food assistance say well maybe these guys don't watch these

Maurice Vega

22 Responses

  1. We used to melt it and pour it over white rice and coleslaw, and mix it up and eat it with hot sauce. Kinda craving it right now. lol

  2. Continue creating government cheese but dispute it to the homeless shelters, churches, schools, and to opt-in needy people programs only.

  3. When I was in school, my Mom directed a Girl Scout camp. We had to store all that cheese, peanut butter, butter, rice, flour, cornmeal, raisins, powdered eggs, corn syrup, powdered milk and canned "pork". I forget what else, but we had to experiment with suitable ways to make the best use of the commodities in a camp setting.

  4. We didn't qualify for it. My dad would not have taken it even if we did. My grandma got a box and gave it to my mom. It made a good macaroni and cheese. Our school lunches had a lot of cheese recipes. Back then most of the school lunches were made from government surplus items.

  5. The new government cheese you can't give that shot away it light colored cheese taste bad .very bad I try to give it away no one.wants it.

  6. They still make it it’s Call Mr. Sharpie and it has a rat 🐀 on it. Then the changed the name to Meadow Brooks it’s literally the highest 🧀 in the deli case

  7. I always liked government cheese. We used to go to the National Guard unit and get all kinds of food for free. Bologna, cheese, rice and some other foods I can't remember.

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