WASHINGTON — If you’re old enough, you probably remember (literal) government cheese handouts. If you’re not, I’m here to tell you that the U.S. government used to have so much cheese stockpiled that they gave pounds of it away for free.
The idea of “government cheese” is an enduring blip in the American psyche. Imagine watching lines of people wait around to be handed a giant block of moldy, bright orange cheese. Government cheese showed up in school lunches nationwide. It’s not easy to forget.
Because of this, a lot of Americans would still believe that the government has massive stockpiles of cheese waiting around in caves (Yes, they literally used to have cheese caves). So when someone sends out a tweet with that claim every couple months, thousands are bound to share it. That’s where Verify steps in.
Does the U.S. government have billions of pounds of cheese stockpiled?
- Christopher Wolf, Agricultural Economist at Cornell University
- Mark Stephenson, Director of Dairy Policy Analysis at University of Wisconsin-Madison
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
No, the U.S. government doesn't have billions of pounds of cheese stored away. That cheese stockpile does exist, but it is privately owned.
WHAT WE FOUND
In 2021, there were about 1.4 billion pounds of cheese in cold storage holdings in any given month according to the USDA. But our experts explained that it is almost entirely owned by private companies–Big Dairy, if you will.
“Precious little cheese is owned by the government," Stephenson said. "We used to have a program in place where the government would buy some storable dairy products, and a very specific kind and style of cheese was one of those items. But those programs became completely sidelined back in the 1980s.”
The U.S. government put price protection programs in place after World War II to help keep the faltering dairy industry afloat. But by the time President Ronald Reagan took office in the '80s, cheese prices were high and the administration was ready to cut it. The program, that is.
The 2014 Farm Bill put the program to rest. Congress took the program off the books completely, and replaced it with updated risk management strategies to support dairy farmers should they need help in the future.
No matter who owns all that cheese, more than 1 billion pounds of it sounds like a truly frightening amount of cheese. If all dairy production came to a halt, that would be enough to hold us over without having to go vegan, right?
Well not quite, because if you couldn’t tell by any restaurant or fast food commercial on TV, Americans love their cheese. The average American consumes almost 40 pounds of cheese every year.
“We consume as a country almost 13.5 billion pounds of cheese a year,” Wolf said. “So while 1.3 billion is a significant amount of cheese, it's only 10% of what we're going to consume in a year.”
Dairy consumption is at its highest over the holidays. The amount of cheese, butter and cream used for mac & cheese alone on Thanksgiving is unfathomable. But on the production side, peak production is in the spring.
“We produce the most milk in April, May and June during what's called the spring flush,” Wolf said. “So there's a kind of countercyclical relationship between supply and demand. So one thing that has to happen is we have to take some of that milk that is produced in May and June and make it into cheese and butter and other products that we store.”