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The U.S. Government has a Secret Mountain of Cheese

Written by Lloyd Waldo

Somewhere, deep in the heart of America, just where one would least expect to find it, there lies a little hill. Hidden inside, in a series of caves, under lock and key, lies a golden treasure that weighing 140,000 times the contents of Fort Knox itself.

But it not bricks of gold that line the halls of this hidden fortress outside Kansas City, Missouri… it’s around 635 thousand tons, or a little over 1.4 billion pounds, of delicious golden cheddar cheese.

And that’s not all. Along with this vast wealth of cheese, are stored a couple hundred thousand tons of butter and dry milk powder, over 100,000 tons of pecans, and over 400,000 tons of french fries.

Just to give you an idea of how much food that is: a single ton of fries represents about 2.83 million calories, or enough to feed an average sized man for nearly 3 years. If it needed to, the store of fries alone could sustain over 1 million people for a year or more.

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How The Cheese Got There

It may not surprise you to learn that, like so many quirky features of the modern industrial state, the origins of this great cheese hoard can be found in The Great Depression.

By the early 1900s, American inventors had pioneered mobile refrigeration for long-distance food delivery, much to the delight of dairy farmers, who were suddenly able to sell their wares anywhere within the United States. American consumers, many of them poor immigrants from Europe and East Asia, were developing a love for all things dairy.

At the time, medical experts were beginning to recognize the benefits of dairy products, particularly for their protein content, which is one reason milk and cheese became a staple for Americans leading up to the Second World War.

It was also cheap. Americans, by around 1920, found that dairy products were by far the cheapest source of calories from protein, and the great dairyfication of the American diet was well underway, with Americans inventing all manner of new uses for dairy, from milkshakes to grilled cheese sandwiches to pizza.

As happened in many industries amidst the demobilization and return of millions of troops from the European and East Pacific theaters in the years following the Second World War however, the American Dairy industry found itself in trouble.

While production had grown consistently to meet the war effort (and to help feed Europe and Japan in the years following the war), by 1949, the price of a gallon of milk had fallen too low for the millions of dairy farmers to support themselves in the US.

Then in steps Uncle Sam, with the introduction of the USDA Dairy Product Price Support Program, in 1949. The idea being for the government to buy up any surplus milk that farmers couldn’t sell, to support the price and keep farmers in business.

But what happens when you’re buying millions of gallons of milk you can’t possibly drink, and which you can’t sell without crashing the dairy market?

Why of course, you turn it into cheese! Cheese production became an important way to preserve and store the millions of tons of cheese that American farmers produced each year.

Cheese Gets Political

While the idea of controlling the price of cheese; buying it up when it’s cheap and selling it off when it’s getting too expensive might be popular with farmers, by the 1970s, the US government had built up a considerable collection of dairy products. Over 1 million metric tons, in fact. That’s enough for several pounds of cheese per person in America at the time, and nobody quite knew what to do with it all.

The problem, as with so many well intentioned government programs is it didn’t really work.

Guaranteed a steady income through government buying programs, farmers simply increased their dairy output even more, flooding the market with cheap and plentiful cheese, butter, and other dairy products. The USDA quickly ran out of places to store the cheese.

Faced with a growing energy crisis and a rise in the popularity of soft drinks and juices, along with lunch meat and salads instead of milk and cheese, by 1975 the US government was finding it harder to justify the enormous mountain of dairy products it had collected. But stopping the cheese train was politically divisive, which is why President Jimmy Carter made support for Dairy Farmers an important pillar of his own presidential campaign in 1976.

When the conservative Ronald Reagan succeeded Carter as President in 1981, he looked upon the government’s efforts to control the dairy market with skepticism. Still, despite his administration’s hostility to government intervention, the USDA remained wary of offloading the cheese, for fear of irreparably harming the dairy industry.

One unnamed, but presumably high-up, USDA official commented in 1981 to the Washington post:

“We’ve looked and looked at ways to deal with this, but the distribution problems are incredible. And you cannot permit a disruption of sales. Probably the cheapest and most practical thing would be to dump it in the ocean.”

Despite this concern, by 1984, the problem had become considerably worse. At its peak, it’s believed by USDA officials that there were over 5 pounds, or just over 2 kilos of cheese and other dairy products for every man, woman, and child in the United States, all sitting in caves under Kansas City.

Oh… and it was rotting. That’s right, as if this problem wasn’t bad enough, no one actually knew how old all of the cheese was, or how long all of it had actually been stored, and thousands of tons of it had already succumbed to mold.

In the 1980s, at a press conference, a representative of the Reagan Administration displayed a hunk of rotting cheese in the White House Press Room and declared that the United States was experiencing a “Cheese Emergency.” This event, along with changes in government policy in the 1980s saw much of the cheese given away, pawned off on everything from hospitals to military bases, school lunchrooms, prisons, food pantries and even direct “Great Cheese Giveaways” on the streets of American cities.

It was here that “government cheese” entered the popular lexicon, and came to represent a failed big government program: a message the “small government” Reagan Administration was all too happy to encourage.

The truth however, was much more complex. The government had become such a player in the cheese market, that the decision to buy or sell cheese became something of a political football, with Presidential candidates pledging to increase cheese stores, or to reduce them, depending on who they were trying to persuade to vote for them.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Products_of_the_Cheese_Cluster_in_the_Dmitrovsky_District.jpg

The Smelly Legacy of Government Cheese

As funny as the story may seem, there is a dark side to all that cheese.

Some of the tactics the USDA used to offload its cheese surpluses contributed to the growing obesity epidemic in America. It gave millions of dollars (along with free, or cheap, cheese) to fast food companies like Taco Bell and Domino’s to increase the amount of cheese on their menu items… sometimes by as much as 8 times. Ever wonder why Americans are so enamored with cheese? Wonder no more: it goes back to Reagan.

That wasn’t all. The USDA was the ring-leader of a series of marketing pushes that reached their peak in the 1990s with such popular hits as California’s “It’s the Cheese” advertising campaign, and the internationally famous “Got Milk” ads, which encouraged generations of kids and adults to indulge in milk and cheese.

According to data compiled by the American Center for Disease Control, the obesity rate in America grew from 12% in 1991 to nearly 18% by 1998.

The excess of cheese production is also still very much a part of American life. Americans are estimated to consume an average of about 40 pounds, or 18 kilograms, of cheese, per person, per year, placing it just outside of the top ten countries in the world by cheese consumption per capita. It also rivals the top consumers of milk around the world, drinking in a whopping 255 liters of the stuff every year, per capita; over double the international average.

However, despite not cracking the top ten in consumption of dairy products, the United States is among the top 3, along with France and Italy, in cheese production.

Strangely enough: the United States is not the only country to do this. Canada is also known for having a strategic maple syrup reserve, and the European Union has a long history of building “butter mountains” and “wine lakes.”. Let us know in the comments if you’d like videos about those ridiculous mega projects…

SubTropolis: The Cheesiest Place on Earth

Today the price of dairy is less of a political issue than it once was, with much of the current store of former government cheese belonging to private food companies, but the pile of stinky evidence of government subsidies remains.

Despite decades of trying to reduce its cheese stockpiles, the US government never really succeeded in ridding itself of all that cheese. There are still nearly 1.2 billion pounds, or half a billion kilos, stored in Missouri.

If there’s a picture in your mind forming of millions upon millions of rounds and blocks of cheese for as far as the eye can see… well you guessed it, that’s exactly right.

(In describing the size, I’ll stick to imperial units, so just keep in mind that a foot is about ⅓ of a meter, and a square foot is 1/9th of a square meter)

In fact, the great cheese reserve is not all stored in one location: it’s distributed between about 150 warehouses in 35 states, but the largest single repository is stored at the SubTropolis facility, a 55 million square foot complex situated on 1,100 acres on the Missouri River in Kansas City, Missouri.

Excavated from limestone deposits, the cave lies 160 feet below the surface of Kansas City, with passages about 16 feet high and 40 feet wide, and pillars of limestone every 11 feet.

Currently, over 7 million square feed are occupied, with another nearly 7 million more available for future expansion. So to give you an idea of the scale, the Subtropolis facility would offer about as much area of storage as 120 football fields, with ceilings a little lower than a two story building.

The facility doesn’t just store cheese. Its 1,700 employees facilitate the storage of everything from film reels to server farms, but in terms of scale and volume, the cheese stands alone.

All of this infrastructure… it does not come cheap. It’s estimated that the US government continues to spend over $1m a day on storage.

Still, all the information the government keeps on its strategic cheese reserve is sketchy at best. No official figures exist for exactly how much cheese is stored in Subtropolis. Rest assured however: there is a lot of it down there.

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Cheese Facts

Not just any cheese is good enough for the great cheese hoard in Missouri. In fact, despite the popular reputation of government cheese as being barely edible slop, the truth is that much of this cheese is considered USDA Grade A premium stuff.

Virtually all the government cheese in Missouri is cheddar cheese.

Cheddar can typically last significantly longer than other, softer cheeses, though it does not keep as well as the hardest cheeses such as Parmesan.

Nearly all of the government cheese in Missouri is also processed, which removes impurities in an attempt to keep it preserved for as long as possible. This makes the cheese softer and a bit more rubbery, similar to so-called “American Cheese” slices or Velveeta, but according to one USDA veteran, it is often of a much higher overall quality than many commercial cheeses.

Loved or hated by anyone from farmers to federal prisoners, the fact is that government cheese and the great cheese caves of Missourri are a testament to the spirit of an age – an age of delicious cheese.

It’s entirely possible that in another 50 years from now, the cheese reserve will still be there. While most recent government policy favors direct cash subsidies to farmers, rather than the purchasing of their products for stockpiling… as an apparent testament to how silly ideas never really seem to go away, in 2017, the Trump administration once again directed the USDA to begin buying cheese. So the cheese reserve is once again growing.

Sources:

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/government-cheese

https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/08/31/643486297/episode-862-big-government-cheese

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/11/government-cheese-phenomenon-usda-american-cheese-surplus.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1981/12/05/cheese-giveaway-churning/4f3aa750-cf4b-494d-b87a-5a02c94336f5/?utm_term=.825983768258

https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/45073/37651_err149.pdf?v=0

https://www.kcur.org/show/central-standard/2014-09-17/the-types-of-things-lurking-underground-in-kansas-citys-caves

https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/cheddar-cheese-grades-and-standards

https://www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/r991026.htm#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20findings%2C%20the,to%2017.9%20percent%20in%201998.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/183785/per-capita-consumption-of-cheese-in-the-us-since-2000/#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20the%20average%20consumer,increased%20by%20over%20five%20pounds.

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