Does anyone remember that cheap dairy by-product that stunk up American kitchens from the late 70s to the early 90s with the stench of stinky gym socks?
Photo via Wiki Commons
If you get upset when conservatives complain about Obama's socialized healthcare, just remind them that Reagan socialized cheese.
James L. Kraft of Illinois patented a manufacturing process in 1916 that allowed for mass production of his famous orange cheese "product". Containing a mixture of colby and cheddar with curds and emulsifiers, the Kraft company's almost-cheese became enormously popular during the first half of the 20th century. It was cheap, shipped easily, and had a ridiculously long shelf life. Processed cheese—which eventually came to be called, simply, 'American' cheese—became a staple of the 20th century American diet.
Meanwhile, as part of price support programs for farmers enacted in the 30s, the United States government began to stockpile dairy products. By the 80s, the stockpiles were so large that merely storing them became prohibitively expensive. The government even paid dairy farmers not to produce any dairy for five years, buying the farmers' cattle herds. The cheese would have eventually spoiled without any outlets, and there was no more space to store it. In 1981, the Reagan administration decided to distribute free processed cheese to America's poor under the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program.
During the 80s and early 90s, mysterious and powerful goo seemed to be all the rage—think the ectoplasmic fluid in Ghostbusters and the Jheri curl chemicals. But "government cheese" might have been the era's most popular viscous substance. Because of the wide reach of the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, a significant proportion of the country's low-income population was eating cheese packaged and distributed by Uncle Sam. The goods were delivered from the federal government to each state, where it was sent to various warehouses and community centers for free pick-up. Less frequently, it was reserved for victims of natural disasters.
In the 90s, when the herd buyouts ended and the dairy market stabilized, there was little need for the government to continue its cheese hoarding. According to Ken Vorgert, chief of the Dairy Grading Branch of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, the donation programs dwindled once the government no longer had its cheap reserves.
We've all eaten and loved Kraft American Singles. But there's a special je ne sais quoi that accompanies the fact that your food is being made by Uncle Sam—often contempt, or associations with hard times. For many, recollections of the food transcend its gustatory characteristics; government cheese represents times of poverty, when its consumers were forced to rely on federal handouts to fill the dinner table. Some rappers reference government cheese in their lyrics to recall the lean times. In "F.U.T.W.," Jay-Z flaunts his rags-to-riches story: "After that government cheese, we eating steak/After the projects, we on estates." Kendrick Lamar similarly recalls a destitute and cheesy youth in "Money Trees:" "Pots with cocaine residue, every day I'm hustling/ What else is a thug to do when you eating cheese from the government?"
There were other issues that set government cheese apart from standard processed cheese. Because the quantities involved were so large, storage difficulties often led to moldiness. My uncle, Kirk Meyer, was involved with the Boston Food Bank when TEFAP went into effect. He recalled the logistical nightmare of storing and refrigerating the huge amounts of cheese, which often spoiled. "We're talking 40-foot semi tractor trailers with 20 pallets of cheese in each truckload," he said.
Perhaps more importantly, any type of cheese can be problematic for the digestive systems of millions of Americans. According to the University of Georgia, 75 percent of African-Americans, 51 percent of Latinos, and 80 percent of Asian-Americans are lactose-intolerant, versus the 21 percent of Caucasians. And because minorities historically have been heavily represented in welfare programs, the government wasn't really doing Americans' butts a favor. A choice excerpt from the Wayans brothers' early 90s sketch comedy show, In Living Color, reimagines archetypal television family the Bunkers as black:
Archie: Edith! What's for dinner?
Edith: Oh, Archie, it's your favorite! Macaroni and the government cheese!
Archie: Aw, geez, Edith! You know what the government cheese does to me! I spend more time on the throne than Queen Latifah!
But not everyone hated government cheese. According to the USDA document "PCD5 Pasteurized Process American Cheese for Use in Domestic Programs," the cheese must slice and melt easily. In fact, "The cheese shall have been tested for meltability in accordance with AMS Methods of Laboratory Analysis, and shall be at Number 3 or higher." AMS scale meltability Number 3—or as gourmets prefer, Numéro trois—apparently lends itself perfectly to grilled cheese sandwiches, nachos, and similar melty cheese foods. The popular Chico's Tacos in El Paso, Texas serves government tacos, a re-appropriation or perhaps even a celebration of a food that many poor immigrants in the largely Latino region likely ate regularly during the 80s and 90s. Online forums are rife with fond memories of government cheese omelets, cheese sauces, and sandwiches.
Like anything you grow up with and then lose subsequently access to, government cheese is parked in a prominent spot in the memories of its former consumers. It is more than a food that millions of people ate; it is a historical poverty symbol that has vanished from the pantry. Societally, recollections of government cheese are ambivalent—but hey, that's representative democracy. Hail to the cheese.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2014.