In the 1980s, the US government found itself with a massive surplus of cheese due to volatile milk production and federal support for the dairy industry. With over 500 million pounds of processed American cheese stored in warehouses across 35 states, the government struggled to find a use for it. When the public discovered the surplus, they criticized President Ronald Reagan for not distributing the cheese to struggling families.
In response, Reagan authorized the release of 30 million pounds of cheese through the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, targeting the elderly and low-income individuals. Dubbed “government cheese,” it became a symbol of hard times, with some grateful for the assistance, while others felt it stigmatized their socioeconomic status. The cheese distribution continued until the 1990s when dairy prices stabilized.
After the cheese distribution ended in the 1990s, the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), the government-owned corporation responsible for the surplus, faded from the headlines. However, it resurfaced during the Trump administration when it was announced that the CCC would provide significant subsidies to offset the impact of trade wars with China, Canada, and the European Union.
In retrospect, the “government cheese” program remains a controversial and memorable chapter in US history. Some people remember the cheese fondly for the assistance it provided during difficult times, while others still associate it with the humiliation of revealing their economic hardships. The cheese itself, with its unique flavor and texture, has become a cultural touchstone, evoking memories of a challenging period in American history.
For those who have experienced the taste of “government cheese,” it leaves a lasting impression. The cheese’s flavor is often characterized as a mix between Velveeta and American cheese, evoking feelings of either humiliation or appreciation for those who relied on it for sustenance. Its distinctive pale orange hue and iconic five-pound blocks quickly set it apart from common cheddar or Camembert.