Government food donations from warehouses once overflowing with surplus cheese and other farm commodities are rapidly ending, the Agriculture Department has reported.
Rice and honey inventories will be gone next month, and cheese and nonfat dry milk will be depleted in May, said Assistant Secretary John W. Bode, who oversees the department's food and consumer services.
"Flour, cornmeal and butter distributions will continue as in recent months," he said. "Cheese, nonfat dry milk, rice and honey distributions will be suspended when we have given it all away. When we get more, we will distribute it."
According to department estimates, as many as 18 million people had been getting free food each month through the program.
The food was accumulated by the department's Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) under various farm price-support programs. In the case of dairy products, for example, the CCC buys surplus butter, cheese and nonfat dry milk to prop up the price of milk paid to farmers.
But many federal supports have been reduced, helping make some commodities more competitive on the market instead of winding up in government warehouses. Overseas sales or donations have helped drain off some of the surpluses. Diversion of many CCC-owned foods into school lunch programs also has reduced stockpiles.
"Although variations in surplus stocks cause the size of the temporary emergency program to go up and down, our regular food assistance programs . . . continue," Bode said. "Low-income Americans remain eligible for food stamps, free lunches and breakfasts, elderly food assistance, supplemental food programs for women, infants and children, child care meals and summer child feeding."
One of every seven Americans receives food assistance at some point in the year at a taxpayer cost of more than $56 million a day, he said.
Since 1981, 5 billion pounds of food worth more than $5 billion have been distributed through the program, Bode said.