Why The U.S. Government Stockpiled A Ridiculous Amount Of Cheese

Conspiracy theorists notwithstanding, many people feel our government does some questionable stuff. Sometimes it's sketchy, sometimes it's shady, and sometimes it's just downright bizarre. Perhaps one of the most bizarre things our folks in Washington, D.C. have done is stockpile cheese.

No, cheese isn't military code for missiles, slang for laundered money, and by no means is this an early April Fool's joke. It's straight cheese — 1.4 billion pounds of it, to be precise (via NPR). Stored in a cavern beneath Springfield, Missouri, is the Fort Knox of dairy products, with shelves upon shelves of wheels of cheese. The reason there's all that cheese is simple: It's just a surplus of cheese we're not exactly sure what to do with.

But why do we have so much excess cheese? Here's where the answer gets a bit muddy. One reason is that Americans are drinking less and less milk, with milk sales dropping from 46.22 billion pounds of milk in 2020 to 40.43 billion pounds in 2021 (via Statista). Since milk production continues to rise with fewer people consuming it, that excess milk is turned into cheese, as it stays fresher for longer periods of time (via NPR). It's a case of too much food and too few people willing to eat it.

But what does the government have to do with cheese? How did cheese wind up in the hands of Congress? The answers lie in the relationships between the U.S. government and dairy farmers.

The government once gave everyone free cheese

"Government cheese" may be outdated slang nowadays, but what does it actually mean? The U.S. government has actually played the role of loyal customer to U.S. dairy farmers. From 1930s New Deal policies such as the Commodity Credit Corporation buying up cheese from U.S. farmers to Jimmy Carter's administration pumping $2 billion into the dairy industry back in the 1970s (via History.com), the policymakers in Washington, D.C. have always helped out the dairy industry. But when you buy up a couple of million pounds of cheese, you're going to have to figure out what you're possibly going to do with all of it. It wasn't until the '80s when Ronald Reagan's administration, following backlash about the government wasting food while poorer Americans starved, decided to literally give away free cheese.

Soon enough, Pasteurized Processed American Cheese — a name that rivals any of the finest European cheeses — began to hit the shelves, with California alone receiving 3 million pounds of bright orange cheddar in 1981 (via The New York Times),  The cheese, known as "government cheese," was described as having a taste similar to Velveeta and quickly became a symbol of lower-class lifestyle. In popular culture, such as the Wayans Brother's "In Living Color" sketch show (via Vice Media), the cheese became a subject of humor, seen as low-quality cheap food. Some enjoyed it, some disliked it, but one thing is for sure: There's still plenty of cheese to go around.