Co-published with Taste
Government cheese shows up in the punch lines of jokes and song lyrics, but to those who have actually lived on it, it’s both a cornerstone of survival and an object that inspires complicated tinges of nostalgia.
If you grew up poor in the ‘80s like I did, you couldn’t escape it. The telltale brick-shaped carton encasing a dayglow orange matter that provided equal parts sustenance and humiliation: Government cheese.
It was sometimes also known as “surplus cheese,” although many people don’t know the story behind that term. In the early 80s, the U.S. found itself with massive stockpiles of dairy products, which government publications attribute to price support programs and economic initiatives for farmers and food producers around that time. Faced with (literally) tons of cheese to dispose of, the government decided to unload it on the poor. Congress passed the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981, which allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop programs to give a bunch of these dairy products to families struggling to get by. That year, President Reagan announced the Special Dairy Distribution Program (SDDP) which would oversee the distribution of roughly 30 million pounds of cheese to people struggling to make ends meet.
Perhaps the intent was altruistic, but like most poor kids, I was way too cynical for my age, so I assumed they were just trying to kill off us people on the brink by stuffing us with enough fat and cholesterol to give us heart attacks before we hit high school.
My family has been struggling to keep our heads above water since the day I was born, following in the footsteps of generations before me. My family survived (sometimes just barely) on the patchwork of public assistance programs we had access to at any given time. Moving dozens of times before I finished high school, we bounced around in various locations around the east coast, sometimes crashing with relatives or wherever we could find shelter. There was virtually no stability, financial or otherwise. We could only usually hope to go grocery shopping twice a month: On the 1st of the month (check day) and whenever food stamps were disbursed. The modest provisions we got on those occasions went quickly, and could only sustain our family of five (six if my father happened to be out of jail at the time) for a short time.
Two years after it was implemented, SDDP was replaced by the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), under which the USDA gave out an assortment of surplus food that included butter, flour, powdered milk and other items, in addition to cheese. The program’s name changed again just slightly a few years later when it was dubbed The Emergency Food Assistance Program under the 1990 Farm Bill.
In between our precious twice-monthly visits to the grocery store, we were kept alive by eating whatever we could get our hands on. Often, that meant these government surplus items. The specific offerings of those “government giveaway” programs varied by the month and depending on which program or agency was handling it. Corn flakes, powdered milk, butter and canned juice were common finds. Sometimes you’d get the supremely unappetizing “canned meat,” which nobody ever could actually keep down, no matter how hungry you were. (To clarify, it wasn’t SPAM, which some in my family enjoyed, but rather a mysterious substance with the consistency of mashed canned dog food, topped by a layer of congealed fat about an inch thick that would settle near the top of the can.) But the one thing you could count on was the orange cheese in the rectangular boxes with the USDA markings stamped all over them.
Like many recipients, we never knew exactly what unique combination of substances went into concocting government cheese, and we figured we were probably better off not finding out. Some government materials kept matters opaque, referring to it as “Pasteurized Process American Cheese,” but it’s unclear what, if any, difference there is between that and plain old regular “processed cheese” or the even more mysterious “cheese food” terms that you see on packages of cheese-related products in the grocery store dairy section. Sometimes it was hard and dry—tough to cut, with a tendency to crumble when you tried. Other times, mysteriously, it was soft and adorned with a glistening sheen that was far less appetizing than anything with the word “sheen” has a right to be.
While the taste has been described using a wide range of adjectives both good and bad, the general consensus is that it could be best categorized as a sort of mild cheddar. Many people have compared it to Velveeta—or, at least, the “poor man’s version of Velveeta.”
In the school cafeteria, or when a friend came over and peered in the fridge, the cheese was a source of infinite shame—a clear label of our financial situation. But when no one else was watching, my siblings and I liked the cheese, or at least learned to tolerate it. My younger brother was probably the biggest fan, believing then (and now) that it made for the best grilled cheese sandwiches. We once made a song about what we often called “govment cheese.” Sung to the tune of “Let It Be.” (Turns out, we were ahead of our time musically—today, top artists like Kendrick Lamar give shout-outs to government cheese in their popular hits.)
In some ways it served as a “luxury” item—the closest thing we had to a comfort food. As a child in an abusive and dysfunctional environment full of constant upheaval, you cling to anything that brings you even the slightest bit of comfort or stability. Among the very few constants were persistent hunger, and whatever could help stave it off. The ever-present cheese was a desperately needed element of the familiar.
The Wahlburgers burger chain, owned by entertainers Mark and Donnie Wahlberg and their family, proudly boast that the orange dairy product on their cheeseburgers is indeed government cheese—or “welfare cheese,” as some Wahlberg members have called it. The Wahlbergs grew up poor, and sometimes relied on food stamps. They also rave about their famous mac & cheese recipe that uses the cheese.
Coming from someone else, this might feel insulting, like they were making a joke at struggling people’s expense. But since the family has openly discussed their own journey through poverty—and have adopted the same dark humor used by many of us who have been through the same experiences—instead it comes off as comradery, and perhaps may help destigmatize the cheese a bit.
When asked how they get their hands on a seemingly endless supply of government cheese, the family—via their company Twitter account—coyly replied, “We have our ways.”
When I was growing up, government cheese was available as an additional resource, a supplement to food stamps and any other programs the government offered at the time. Under a plan unveiled earlier this year by the current administration—a proposed program which the Department of Agriculture has dubbed “America’s Harvest Box” —many low-income people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits would get the cheese and other surplus, “shelf-stable” food items, pre-selected by the government, instead of half of their food stamps, not in addition to them.
This means resources people on the brink could use to buy the few precious food items they can choose on their own would literally be cut in half. Barely making ends meet often means sacrificing personal autonomy. Allowing people struggling to get by (particularly parents) the freedom that many others take for granted—the ability to select the basic items they can feed their family—is a small yet powerful allowance that lets people maintain one of the few vestiges of control they have over their own lives.
Recently, our family came full circle, as my mother began once again receiving the blocks of government cheese as part of food boxes distributed to low-income senior citizens. My mother’s dietary restrictions prevent her from eating the cheese, so she passed it along to me and my sister. Seeing the same brick-shaped boxes I know so well, I immediately felt the old familiar contradictory mix of emotions—shame, combined with a respect for this cornerstone of my childhood that provided my family with critical sustenance.
While I personally don’t have strong feelings about the taste one way or the other, I must give the cheese a sort of begrudging reverence—one I seem to share with Kendrick Lamar and the Wahlbergs. The cheese itself is almost beside the point in the scenario facing many struggling people today, though. It’s about what the cheese represents, a symbol of the efforts to render a certain part of society powerless.
That’s a bitter taste that goes way beyond the sharp flavor of any dairy product.