The White House will take up the question of whether to free the cheese this week.

According to White House farm policy adviser Burleigh Leonard, the hundreds of millions of pounds of surplus cheese that are accumulating in caves and warehouses around the country are on the agenda of the White House's Cabinet council on food and agriculture, which is meeting Monday and Tuesday.

After Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block pointed out the growing surplus of cheese and what it is costing to grow vast colonies of cheese mold, consumer groups have been sending "free the cheese" petitions and telegrams to the White House. They've suggested giving it to the needy as a giant Christmas present.

But, the government says, it isn't easy to give away old cheese.

It may be illegal for the government to give "in kind contributions" -- that is, non-money gifts -- to families, Leonard said yesterday. The food stamp law would seem to prohibit it because it would complicate the calculations that determine food stamp eligibility.

"But where there's a will, there's a way," Leonard said. Giving away part of the 600 million or so pounds of surplus cheese "would be a heck of a lot better than dumping it in the sea, which I've heard some people suggest. That would break my heart," he said.

If it turns out to be illegal, it may be possible to go to Congress to get the authority for a one-time cheese bonanza for poor families of the nation.

"If there is a consensus" from this week's Cabinet council meetings, said Leonard, the cheese can be freed.