Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.) and at least 65 other House members are saying "cheese" -- and saying it to a fare-thee-well -- but they aren't smiling about it.
They are angry at the Agriculture Department's continuing refusal to release additional surplus cheese from its warehoused cache of more than 600 million pounds for distribution to the poor and to feeding programs around the country.
Vento and other allies testifying yesterday before a House Agriculture subcommittee accused the administration of wasting $48 million a year to store surplus cheese rather than distribute it to the needy.
And subcommittee members, led by Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), ganged up on Robert E. Leard, head of USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, for proposing major spending cuts in the food-stamp and other feeding programs for fiscal 1987.
Panetta and others expressed concern about the proposed cuts, which would have the effect of changing portions of the 1985 farm bill that the administration agreed to earlier.
When Leard said he wasn't sure why the hungry stand in line at soup kitchens, Panetta pounced. "You ought to take the time to ask," he said. "Those people would prefer not to be there . . . . You're not sure if there is a problem of hunger in the country and your program reflects that ambivalence."
At another point, criticizing administration plans to cut spending on a job-training program in the farm bill, Panetta said: "That's the kind of insanity the government gets accused of, and you're just repeating it."
Leard did not answer when Panetta challenged him to "name one person who thinks this makes sense."
Rep. E (Kika) de la Garza (D-Tex.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said the department's nutrition proposals were "an irresponsible dismantling of the 1985 farm act, and we are just not going to do this."
Leard testified that the administration wants to save $50 million by requiring states and emergency feeding groups to pay all the costs of distributing surplus commodities donated under the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).
Cheese, butter, nonfat dry milk, honey, flour and rice -- all surplus products acquired by USDA via farm support programs -- are distributed through TEFAP.
The cheese controversy is sparked by demands by the Minnesota congressional delegation and state government that more of the surplus be given to the needy there. Vento and others have pressed USDA for months, to no avail.
Vento said that 65 other House members have joined in a new appeal to Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng. The department has argued that it cannot afford higher distribution costs and that the surplus giveaway is displacing commercial cheese sales.
Vento also complained that USDA has compounded the cost problem by trucking surplus cheese produced in Minnesota, where warehouses are filled, to Kansas for storage and redistribution.
Joe Samargia, Minnesota jobs and training commissioner, said that unemployment and farm failures had intensified the demand for cheese at a time when USDA was cutting his state's allocation. "There is no justification for paying millions of dollars annually for the storage of cheese when there are people who need it," he said.