One hundred feet underground, temperatures normally hover around 58 degrees Fahrenheit. In this man-made cave, however, it’s a cool 36. An elaborate system of pumps runs a steady stream of coolants from aboveground to protect the buried inventory. Thousands of red, orange, and yellow barrels line the floor like an industrial sunset, each oversized trashcan weighing 680 pounds and filled to the brim with dairy. These limestone caves in Springfield, Missouri are home to the United States’ largest stockpile of its 1.2 billion-pound surplus of cheese, built up through subsidies by the US government. Purging this excess cheese has been a problem for the United States government since the Great Depression, and the primary solution to this long-standing problem has been fairly consistent: feed the cheese to the poor.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed a farm bill that released 30 million pounds of processed cheese for states to give to low-income residents. The cheese was distributed to people on welfare, food stamps, and Social Security through the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program until the 1990s. This program birthed the term “government cheese,” and despite the 1981 farm bill’s attempt to bite into the 2-billion-pound cheese surplus, the 30 million pounds of cheese it released barely made a dent in the stockpile.
As a result, the government established Dairy Management. Still operating today, Dairy Management is a federally-funded nonprofit corporation whose mission is to promote American-made dairy products, a mission recognizable in their “Got Milk?” advertisement campaign, the Fuel Up to Play 60 Campaign, and even the Dominos bailout following the 2010 recession. Dairy Management’s main strategy has been to increase consumer confidence in milk and dairy products by expounding their health benefits and nutritional value.
These efforts aimed at increasing consumer consumption have been successful: The average American consumes 14 more pounds of cheese a year than they did in 1990. However, government cheese disproportionately goes to low-income individuals. Dairy Management’s strategy is more surreptitious than advertisements about milk moustaches; it has successfully convinced the public of dairy’s health benefits, despite most scientific evidence pointing to the contrary. This agenda is also pushed through public institutions. Prisons have contracts with national and state dairy producers, schools opt into government programs that subsidize and push dairy products, and charitable organizations still receive cheese donations from the US government. The seemingly benign—or even beneficial—solution of funneling excess cheese to lower-income people and the incarcerated, however, is actually a huge problem.
The idea that cheese and milk are essential parts of a well-balanced diet is largely an American-centric and white-centric notionIn fact, the majority of people of color are lactose intolerant. What makes the government’s dumping of cheese to low-income individuals particularly egregious is the correlation between race and income. This cheese is not just going into the hands of people without the economic privilege to opt out. It’s disproportionately being forced into the bellies of people of color who cannot digest it.
Consuming dairy products while lactose intolerant can plague individuals with a host of symptoms, ranging from diarrhea to joint pain and even to difficulty with short-term memory. Because these symptoms occur spasmodically and with varying severity, they are often underreported and misattributed. For those who are lactose intolerant, consuming a large dose of dairy with most meals could mean living with chronic pain or fatigue. As a direct result of US policy, it takes a certain amount of privilege to choose not to eat dairy and incur the associated health risks.
People receiving meals from prisons, schools, and charities have little control over the ingredients they eat, and low-income individuals are the most likely to be recipients of these meals., In effect, government treats the poor and captive populations as wastebaskets for its excess cheese. This is most striking in prisons. Most state prisons have contracts with food and dairy suppliers, and when these contracts expire, suppliers can bid on the prisons. Prisons are an attractive and stable purchaser of dairy, serving slices of processed cheese on plates or simple cheese sandwiches, often to fulfill food requirements for federal facilities put forth by the USDA.
Schools play a large part in propping up the milk industry, as well. School milk accounts for about 7 percent of all fluid milk sales in the United States. This is due in part to the fact that the National School Lunch Program requires that fluid milk be offered daily alongside free meals. The dairy industry’s investment in these meals is concerning, given that 87 percent of Black students, 74 percent of Hispanic students, and 68 percent of Native American students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals—the students who are most likely to be unable to digest them. The Special Milk Program further promotes dairy-heavy school meals, reimbursing all participating schools for their fluid milk purchases in full in an effort to lower milk prices. The government is specifically targeting lower-income individuals and people of color, turning them into milk drinkers regardless of whether their stomachs want them to be.
Even without government endorsement, dairy has no problem finding its way to schoolchildren. Due to the popularly-held fallacy that milk is essential to health, food service staff at educational facilities often require students to drink milk, with no replacement available for students who refuse. Students who are behind on lunch payments are sometimes offered cheese sandwiches as a replacement for a conventional lunch.
Poor people and people of color should not have to atone for the sins of America’s dairy subsidization, and big dairy is just one of many ways that the government uses low-income individuals and minority populations as an outlet for its excesses. While the obvious first step to solving this problem is to stop producing so much cheese, to do so would be tricky for the US government, since it would also constitute the loss of farming jobs, the slaughter of dairy cows, and a PR nightmare. And if the cheese isn’t going to people in the United States, it would have to go abroad, outsourcing the US dairy problem to other countries, many of whom might have even higher rates of lactose intolerance.
While slowing milk production may reduce the dairy industry’s pernicious impact on low-income individuals, it does not completely reconcile dairy’s problems with people of color. Even though dairy consumption results in adverse health outcomes for the lactose intolerant, dismantling the cultural ethos that milk is healthy is no small task. Legal remedies have mostly failed so far. Litigation against the USDA’s pro-milk campaigns, petitions to remove milk from school lunches, and lawsuits concerning milk carton labelling that accuse the USDA of discrimination by forcing people of color to conform to white-centric health norms have been unsuccessful.
However, the US government’s decision to prioritize the dairy industry over low-income people and people of color isn’t just harmful, callous, and racist; it’s also extremely expensive. Over the last decade, the US government has spent billions maintaining its unhealthy relationship with cheese. The US must either find a better way to deal with its surplus of cheese, or stop subsidizing its overproduction.