Despite mountains of evidence linking dairy foods to poor health, the USDA is buying a mountain of cheese and giving it to poor people.
America has a Cheese Problem
This year, dairy farmers in the US are facing a record-levels of excess cheese. NPR reports that The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is purchasing about $20 million worth of cheese from dairy farmers and giving it to food banks across the country. This is good news for dairy farmers who have seen falling prices and excess cheese in storage. On its face, it’s also good news for food banks, who say that cheese is popular but ‘hard to get.’
But the bigger question is whether or not this is a good long term solution for people who rely on food banks for nutrition.
While cheese is in high demand and food banks, high dairy consumption is linked to obesity, diabetes, and inflammation. This is especially important in lower income communities, where people often lack high-quality, fresh vegetables and fruits and instead rely on processed, nutrient-poor foods.
The health of low-income communities is, not surprisingly, much poorer than those of middle- or upper income for many reasons: lack of access to health care, inability to afford prescriptions, and of course, lack of access to fresh food.
The good news is that some food banks are being proactive about refusing low-nutrient, high-calorie foods and encouraging their retail partners to donate fruits and vegetables instead. Nancy Roman, president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank, told Vox, “We have a moral obligation to not just get food to people — but the right food.” The Vox article is really interesting and addresses the connection between hunger (food insecurity) and obesity.
With so much evidence pointing to the dangers of dairy, perhaps the USDA should reconsider bailing out the industry and foising all of that artery-blocking cheese on food banks?
Why We Ended Up with So Much Cheese
Here in the U.S., Dairy and meat farmers are subsidized. These subsidies allow farmers to continue producing their food of choice, most of which are linked to our current obesity epidemic: sugar, corn and soy for processed foods and animal feed along with meat and dairy.
In a recent post, I wrote about how dairy has actually been found to be harmful to most adults. The author of the source article explained in no uncertain terms, “A growing body of research has found that, for grown-ups, consuming too much dairy can actually be harmful.”
Related: How Dairy is Pushed on Consumers
Over recent decades we’ve we’ve come to believe that milk is an important part of our diet thanks to the dairy industry’s savvy marketing. In the US, the $36 billion dairy industry has more sway than you’d like to think within the halls of the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. But you don’t need calcium from dairy, and you can get healthy fats and protein from plant-based sources.
Related: Ecological considerations of consuming excessive meat and dairy
The Dual Mandate of the USDA: Health and Farming
The USDA has what’s considered a ‘dual mandate.’ The agency is supposed to promote health across the population and create nutritional guidelines. At the same time, it’s tasked with encouraging the growth of these farming industries. It’s a major conflict of interest.
This is why U.S. dietary guidelines always prominently list meat and dairy, and it’s one of the reasons that we see ads for commodity crops like beef, pork, eggs, and milk. The campaigns you might be familiar with include ‘Beef– It’s What’s for Dinner,’ or ‘Got Milk?’
These, and dozens others, are funding by government checkoff programs to promote the consumption (and thus production of) these commodity crops. Check out this graph from an NPR article about cheese consumption in the US:
A brief look at our current health crisis should indicate that our obesity epidemic is directly correlated to this conflict of interest within the USDA.
To be fair, this chart looks pretty similar if we look at sugar consumption, so there is no one thing causing of our current health crises. Rather, a combination of processed foods, excess sugar, and increased meat and dairy consumption are the likely culprits. We need to address all of these problems, and when USDA bails out the dairy industry to the tune of millions of dollars, it does a disservice to public health.
The issue we have here is that the USDA has created demand for a product like cheese by telling us to eat it in excess, even though that same agency is creating guidelines that have to steer us away from excess consumption of such foods. Furthermore, the USDA MyPlate dietary guidelines encourage us to choose non-fat or low-fat options. But guess where all that fat goes? Excess dairy fat is used to make this abundance of cheese!
Not only is the USDA promoting the production of these foods, it’s then using more taxpayer money to purchase it back and then give it to low-income communities. To me, this is an example of government failure at all levels. The move is a failure for agriculture community, for the free market, for the American public, and, most importantly, for our low-income communities.
Image Credit: Creative Commons photos via USDA