Cheese Caves and Food Surpluses: Why the U.S. Government currently stores 1.4 billion lbs of cheese

“Cheese Cave” in Springfield,

Missouri Photo Credit: Brown Political Review

By Callie DiModica

August 19, 2021

Hundreds of feet below the ground in Missouri, there are hundreds of thousands of pounds of American cheese. Deep in converted limestone mines, caves kept perfectly at 36 degrees Fahrenheit store stockpiles of government-owned cheese comprising the country’s 1.4 billion pounds of surplus cheese. How we got to this point is a long story, and it starts during a national dairy shortage in the 1970s.

In response to this dairy shortage and 30% inflation on dairy products, the government intervened, resulting in prices falling drastically. So, in 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter decided to pour money into the dairy industry to motivate production and alleviate the crisis. The government set a new policy to subsidize dairy, providing two billion dollars to the industry over the next four years. While this plan was welcome to dairy farmers, it also primed them for overproduction.

Farmers who had been struggling were motivated to produce as much dairy as they could, knowing that whatever was not sold on the market could likely be purchased by the government, and it was. By the early 1980s, the government owned over 500 million pounds of cheese. The reason the dairy product was converted to cheese was because it has a longer shelf life than other dairy products as the government searched for solutions to the problem it had created.

This led to Ronald Reagan enacting public distribution of the government cheese in 1981. That year then-Secretary of Agriculture, John R. Block showed up at the White House with a molding five-pound block of cheese and told reporters, “We’ve got 60 million of these that the government owns… It’s moldy, it’s deteriorating… we can’t find a market for it, we can’t sell it, and we’re looking to give some of it away.” Thus, “government cheese” was born, and the federal government distributed these cheese blocks through the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). It was given away for free by pickup to people at food banks, community centers, and so on. “Government cheese” became a totem of American culture, signaling both class and nostalgia. It is referenced in Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z songs, and in 2017, Snoop Dogg even taught Martha Stewart how to cook with it on their show.

President Ronald Reagan holding a five pound block of “government cheese” in 1981

Photo Credit:

Flash forward to 2019, when the government again found itself storing cheese, this time to the tune of 1.4 billion pounds. Amid trade disputes and declining dairy consumption nationally, the American government has been subsidizing and stockpiling America’s surplus cheese. According to the USDA, American milk consumption has dropped from 275 pounds per capita in 1975 to 149 pounds per capita in 2017.

Though demand is declining, production is not. It has risen 13% since 2010. In 2016, the American dairy industry dumped a whopping