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Why does the U.S. government have 1.4 billion pounds of cheese stored in a cave underneath Springfield, Missouri?

The government has been storing away cheese for decades

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This Feb. 15, 2007, photo shows Gruyere cheese with a cup of coffee. The U.S. government has a cheese stockpile of 1.4 billion pounds. This started in the 1970s during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Larry Crowe, Associated Press

Have you heard of “government cheese” before? No, it isn’t money but actually cheese, 1.4 billion pounds of it to be exact, stored in a cave in Missouri.

According to The Washington Post, the U.S. has the largest domestic reserve of cheese of all varieties, including cheddar, Swiss and American

You may wonder why the government has a massive cheese stockpile.

Well, it started in the 1970s, during former President Jimmy Carter’s era and his promise of giving farmers a break. He wanted to raise the price of milk, but the government couldn’t just buy milk and store it, so it started buying as much cheese as people wanted to sell, according to Pacific Standard Magazine.

But now, farmers were producing way too much cheese, leading to the ultimate question: What should the government do with all the cheddar? To tackle this, former President Ronald Reagan started food assistance programs to distribute 30 million pounds of cheese.

“People talk about food assistance programs as if they were created to help poor people out,” said Andrew Novakovic, professor of agricultural economics at Cornell University, per CNBC. “Yes that’s true, but almost all of the major food assistance programs were ideas that came from agriculture because we had too much of something.”

In the 1990s, the government also started making deals with fast-food restaurants to help sell the surplus. The National Dairy Promotion Board, a semi-public marketing branch, was also created, which created campaigns like “Got Milk?” and a range of popular fast-food menu items like Domino’s seven-cheese pizza or Taco Bell’s very cheesy Quesalupa, according to WBUR.

The 1.4 billion pounds of cheese still exists in cold storage holdings but it is no longer completely owned by the government but by private companies.

“Precious little cheese is owned by the government,” Stephenson said, per WUSA 9. “We used to have a program in place where the government would buy some storable dairy products, and a very specific kind and style of cheese was one of those items. But those programs became completely sidelined back in the 1980s.”

The problem of overproduced cheese stayed consistent throughout the years, with lower dairy consumption. The government offered, again, to buy more cheese worth $20 million in 2016, according to Vox.

The Department of Agriculture has not stopped buying just yet. In August of last year, the agency announced the Cheese Purchase Program to buy Mozzarella, process and natural American cheddar cheese for the National School Lunch Program and other federal food nutrition assistance programs.

According to The Guardian, it’s safe to say that American dairy farmers will continue to look for ways to offload their cheese supplies as the demand for it decreases with a rise in veganism and sustainable eating.

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