Why Is the USDA Dumping Millions of Pounds of Fatty Cheese on Poor People?

Turns out, there is such a thing as too much cheese.

Nancy Mims tests a batch of cheese
Photo Credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service

Here’s a problem that may have slipped under your radar: The United States is in the midst of an epic 1.25 billion pound cheese glut. Low world market prices, increased milk supplies and inventories, and slower demand have pushed the country’s cheese surplus to its highest level in 30 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. Blocks, crumbles and curds are sitting in cold storage stockpiles around the nation; a mountain of cheese so large that every American man, woman and child can eat an extra 3 pounds of cheese this year.

You might have noticed that the cost of dairy products has fallen across the board at the supermarket, and while that’s good news for cheese lovers, dairy farmers and producers have seen their revenues drop 35 percent over the past two years. With more cheese than it knows what to do with, the USDA decided to make two $20 million purchases of surplus cheese in August and October and donated them to food banks. Critics say that the government is simply waving money—ahem, taxpayer funds—at the problem.

This handout abets large-scale dairy producers, who despite the glut, are on their way toward churning out a record 212 billion pounds of milk this year. Michigan dairy farmer Carla Wardin told the Wall Street Journal that she and her colleagues plan to deal with the situation by “do[ing] the same thing … you milk more cows.”

The problems don’t end there. Cheap dairy is not only bad for the health of the environment (from methane-burping cows to water pollution), it’s bad for public health. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine criticized the USDA and its decision-maker Tom Vilsack for effectively dumping artery-clogging food products on poor people. “Please take a moment to ask Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to reconsider the USDA's plan to distribute the fatty cheese to programs that are already struggling to provide participants healthful foods that fight disease,” the group writes in an online petition.

Although cheese has some healthy properties such as bone-building calcium, cheese is loaded with fat and sodium, and even low-fat varieties can contribute to “bad” cholesterol levels. And let’s face it, the way we usually eat cheese is slapping it generously on top of pizza or nachos, making it a delicious but unhealthy treat.

“Typical cheeses are 70 percent fat and are among the foods highest in cholesterol and sodium, exacerbating obesity, heart disease, and diabetes," says PCRM. "Cheese is the number one source of saturated fat in the American diet."

PCRM's petition concludes that the USDA should help food banks and food assistance programs by providing healthier fare such as fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. The diabetes epidemic has risen in poor populations, and sending highly processed, high-fat cheese to food banks isn’t going to make things any better.

Manel Kappagoda, senior staff attorney and program director at ChangeLab Solutions, wrote in a 2014 article that food banks are “a lifeline” for the 50 million Americans who live in food-insecure households and lack access to affordable, nutritious food."

Food pantries, she noted, are critical in maintaining and improving the health of food-insecure Americans. For this reason, many food banks across the country have implemented nutrition standards that eliminate unhealthy products such as candy, sugary drinks and other junk foods. Citing a survey from the Alameda County Community Food Bank in San Francisco, Kappagoda said that families and individuals who go to food banks don’t just want any food—they want fresh produce, low-fat items and other healthy staples.

As Kappagoda wrote, “to help improve the health of the people they serve, food banks can’t just offer food—they must offer good food.”

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Lorraine Chow is a freelance writer and reporter based in South Carolina.