Government cheese is processed cheese provided to welfare beneficiaries, Food Stamp recipients and the elderly receiving Social Security in the United States, and is still provided to food charities. The processed cheese was used in military kitchens since World War II and in schools since as early as the 1950s.
Government cheese is a commodity cheese that was controlled by the U.S. federal government from the time World War II ended and into the early 1980s. Government cheese was created to maintain the price of dairy when dairy industry subsidies artificially increased the supply of milk and created a surplus of milk that was then converted into cheese, butter, or powdered milk. The cheese, along with the butter and dehydrated powder, was stored in over 150 warehouses across 35 states.
History and impact
The cheese was bought and stored by the government’s Commodity Credit Corporation. Direct distribution of dairy products began in 1982 under the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program of the Food and Nutrition Service. According to the government, it “slices and melts well.” The cheese was provided monthly, in unsliced block form, with generic product labeling and packaging.
The cheese was often from food surpluses stockpiled by the government as part of milk price supports. Butter was also stockpiled and then provided under the same program. Some government cheese was made of kosher products. This cheese product is also distributed to victims of a natural disaster following a state of emergency declaration.
This cheese became an important topic for the press in the 1980s when the press learned about the milk products that were being stored across the nation while millions of Americans felt food insecurity. During the same time in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s administration cut the budget on the national food stamp program in the United States.
On December 22, 1981 President Ronald Reagan signed and authorized into law that five hundred and sixty million pounds (250,000 metric tons) of cheese that the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) had been stockpiled should be released, saying that it …
“… will be distributed free to the needy by nonprofit organizations.” Ronald Reagan, in his official statement about the distribution of the Cheese Inventory of the Commodity Credit Corporation, said, “The 1981 farm bill I signed today will slow the rise in price support levels, but even under this bill, surpluses will continue to pile up. A total of more than 560 million pounds of cheese has already been consigned to warehouses, so more distributions may be necessary as we continue our drive to root out waste in government and make the best possible use of our nation’s resources.”
As the bill stated, any state that would ask for the cheese would get 30 million pounds (14,000 metric tons) of it, in 5-pound (2.3 kg) blocks. The bill was approved in the House by a margin of two votes; in the Senate it had a much larger approval rate. The logic behind the distribution was to effectively remove waste and to use all possible resources available in the United States. One representative from the USDA remarked that, “Probably the cheapest and most practical thing would be to dump it in the ocean.”
The distribution of government cheese was claimed to not have an adverse effect on commercially available cheeses, as the government was required to purchase dairy products like cheese to keep the commercial companies afloat. The government could then sell or give the cheese away to foreign countries. At the time of Ronald Reagan’s signing of the 1981 farm bill, the cheese stockpile equaled to more than 2 pounds (1 kg) of cheese for each person living in the United States. Government cheese was frequently moldy. Those who received the cheese did not lose any food stamps and were not required to trade their food stamps in for the cheese. California was the first state to take the cheese; the first delivery that they received was for three million pounds (1,400 t) of cheese. Government cheese was provided to welfare, food stamp, and Social Security recipients at no cost to them. Government cheese was colored orange. It was distributed to low-income families through the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program. Government cheese was nominally removed in the 1990s when the dairy market stabilized.
Like traditional processed American cheese, it consists of a variety of cheese types and other ingredients such as emulsifiers blended together, and may be made of any of Cheddar cheese, Colby cheese, cheese curd, or granular cheese.
Government cheese has become a symbol for American innovation and industrialization, although the nutritional value of the cheese has been in question.It has been argued that people in poverty, such as those entitled to government cheese, are more likely to become obese. Between 1988-1994, those individuals below the poverty line had an obesity rate of 29.2 percent. The Food Security Act of 1985 (the 1985 farm bill) attempted to reduce milk production, but has been labeled as a “hodgepodge of misdirected political compromise.”
The nutrition facts on government cheese suggests a serving size of 1 ounce (28 g), or two slices, of cheese per serving. It also notes that the nutritional information represents the average nutritional value of “Processed American cheese” which was offered by the commodity food program. Per serving, the total fat content is 9 grams, of which 6 grams are saturated fat. Per serving, there are 30 mg of cholesterol and 380 mg of sodium.
Government cheese in the 21st century
On August 23, 2016, the U.S Department of Agriculture released that they planned to purchase approximately eleven million pounds (5,000 t) of cheese,worth $20 million, to give aid to food banks and food pantries from across the United States, to reduce a $1.2 billion cheese surplus that has been at its highest level in thirty years, and to stabilize farm prices. This purchase also added revenues for the dairy producers. Regarding the purchase, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “This commodity purchase is part of a robust, comprehensive safety net that will help reduce a cheese surplus that is at a 30-year high while, at the same time, moving a high-protein food to the tables of those most in need. USDA will continue to look for ways within its authorities to tackle food insecurity and provide for added stability in the marketplace.”
Currently, as part of the USDA Food Nutrition Service Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP),  eligible Seniors over age 60 are provided one 32-ounce block of processed cheese food each month, supplied by participating dairies.