Many families can recall getting blocks of cheese and other food stock from the government surplus program, back in the day. — submitted photo

I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Nor, did I grow up in an environment in which my friends and associates might be described as those with highfalutin values and behaviors that are associated with being uppity or “bougie.” But, I did have outstanding parents with strong values and beliefs that made me a good person.

My father performed miracles for our family, with a modest salary earned from the Philadelphia Transportation Company — the precusor to SEPTA — and the influence of his religious beliefs. In our home, there was no smoking, drinking and cursing. My siblings and I could not even go to the movies on Sundays.

So, I was shaped a certain way and with a clear understanding that I should accept without ridicule those that were less fortunate.

In a discussion with several friends and colleagues about the focus of today’s column, a couple of them told me that they had never participated in or had knowledge of those items that many families relied on to survive. So, I wonder how many of you were in the same boat as some of my more privileged friends and had no need to rely on the government surplus food program, back in the day?

Public housing, welfare checks and surplus foods may not have been things your family had to rely on from the government. Perhaps your family relied on these supports but you chose to conveniently forget them. But, a number of folk that are doing well today survived by using this type of assistance to make a better way for themselves and their families.

So, what was this government surplus food program?

This program enabled those who qualified, essentially the needy, to go to a food distribution center to receive certain agricultural surplus items. As a result of my research and information from family members, friends and associates, I learned that the program began in an attempt to provide support for farm prices and help farmers who were being negatively affected by the Great Depression.

Thus, with farmers losing their farms and increasing malnutrition among children, these issues became a national concern that lead to the U.S. Agricultural Department’s food distribution program in 1933. You may vividly recall the food being distributed by trucks that arrived in your neighborhood or distributed at centers in neighborhoods such as an armory. Residents would wait in line to receive rations.

While this is the government surplus food program that I shall focus on in today’s column, you may not know that other aspects of this program continue to impact the lives of many today. For example, food banks and food pantries currently in many neighborhoods obtain items to stock their shelves from surplus food from the USDA. The meals that some of us ate for lunch while in school was a part of the National School Lunch Act of 1946. The same is true for the Summer Food Service Programs and the School Breakfast Programs today.

What do you think is the primary source for food delivered by Meals on Wheels? As much criticism as we hear about food stamps, this program also has a relationship to surplus food.

Let’s test our recall of the government surplus food program that distributed items such as milk, potatoes, flour and apples, back in the day.

Quite often, you would hear people say that being on welfare was one of the prerequisites for the receipt of government goods. Being on welfare was not a requirement but there was an income ceiling in order to qualify. A recipient of surplus food had to meet an income standard.

You may recall that people did not want to acknowledge that they received and used government surplus foods for fear that their friends and associates would think that they were on welfare. One thing is for sure; neighborhood folk did not turn down surplus food.

Perhaps I should exclude milk; it was powdered milk.

I was unable to find anyone who had anything good to say about the government issued surplus milk. Still, some people found creative ways to consume powdered milk. It was not unusual to mix a gallon of powdered milk with a quart of store-bought buttermilk and make a gallon of buttermilk that was real tasty.

I know of other households that used powdered milk for their mashed potatoes, gravies and sauces. I read about others who mixed powdered milk with regular milk and allowed it to sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours resulting in a taste just like regular milk. I have also learned from others that it was not unusual to use powdered milk to make a cake or some other type of dessert.

A colleague told me that if I thought that the powdered milk was bad, powdered eggs were a close second. I do not know about you, but I cannot imagine eggs made from something coming our of a paper bag or package being tasty.

Canned meats also had an awful reputation. Such meats were described as being so fatty until it was like chewing rubber. On the other hand, I have been told by former participants of the surplus food program that Spam was quite tasty especially when it was sliced and then fried. The person that shared this with me indicated that she would give anything for a slice of fried Spam today.

If you ate government surplus food, peanut butter must be familiar to you. I understand from conversations with others that it was rather stiff. Some people attempted to “doctor” it up and make it more appealing by mixing the peanut butter with honey. Placing the peanut butter and honey in a bowl and using a mixer to mix the two thoroughly resulted in a creamy sweet product.

Besides the foods I have mentioned, rice, flour, butter and yellow corn meal were other surplus items that are often mentioned. A senior citizen pointed out that in spite of the criticisms of surplus foods, they all tasted pretty good when there was nothing else to eat and no other alternative, back in the day.

While peanut butter, powdered milk, canned meats and powdered eggs may have been highly criticized, surplus cheese was in a class all by itself. There are people who I have spoken with that denied that they ever had any surplus food until it came to the cheese.

If you are unfamiliar with surplus cheese of the past, ask one of your older relatives or neighbors. I have no doubt that your will hear praise for this cheese. Some will tell you that by itself, it is not that great. After all, it was a block item that was hard to cut. But, it easily melted and was great with nachos and truly outstanding for making macaroni and cheese and even more outstanding for a grilled cheese sandwich.

A couple of internet postings spoke to how people viewed this cheese. In one posting, a girl indicated that when she visited her grandmother, she would be given either one dollar or a block of cheese for the visit.

Another indicated that her family received surplus cheese during a period of time when her father was out of work. Once he returned to work, his eligibility ended and they could no longer receive surplus foods. They loved the surplus cheese so much that they went around to stores to purchase the cheese but with no luck.

If you grew up in one of our neighborhoods, you would see Cadillacs waiting down the street from a distribution center simply to purchase cheese from eligible recipients. As was mentioned earlier, there was an income requirement for participation in the program. I understand, however, that a number of wealthy people would also purchase surplus cheese illegally from eligible recipients and consume it along with caviar.

One of my colleagues has vivid memories of ladies, and it seemed like every lady in the neighborhood, pulling wagons or pushing baby carriages by her home as they returned from picking up their surplus foods. People would yell to them, “Do you have any extra cheese?”

The government surplus food program as we knew it is gone. But, the next time one of your friends or associates makes critical remarks about the program, remind them that there is little doubt that it was quite beneficial in keeping families well feed and properly nourished, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19146.

(16) comments


[thumbup] Was this not basically the same thing as what's called "commodities" today? This program is income based & cheese, milk (powdered & liquid), and canned goods are distributed.


Thank you!! I can never remember the word "commodities," which was used for the box of food we'd get when my dad was on strike/whatever. He was a coal miner, and I remember that food with fondness. [beam]


Would love to get my hands on some of this food ! Ummmyummm


they gave this out at food pantries now




Hi such a interesting article i am searching for such kind of stuff so i get it here thank you so much sir really impressed

Guest R. Keene

The can meat was awful. To this day I can stand to open a can of dog food.


Any recipes to help me eat it!


do you know where you can get that can meat now, I have pork in the can haven't open it hoping it is the same as years ago, you can fry it


… how about when mixing the powdered milk with water, one can't forget the lumps you just couldn't press all of them out. It was a field day for the town drunks, on welfare, as they would trade most of the welfare food for wine.


I loved the cheese, and having food!


I never new it was for the poor. My Nanny would take us to pick them up. It was a treat. The cheese was amazing


Me too, Salvation Army is giving some out this week. Its still used and appreciated.


My Aunt get's commodities today and it saddens me to tell you they changed the Cheese. It's Velveeta which is good but no where near as good as that block of sharp goodness.


I grew up on commodity and the beef and pork in the can was they best my mother would cook the beef over the stove along with rice it was the best meal ever, as an adult now I still long for the can beef and rice receipe.


I use to love visiting my aunt because she always had that huge block of government cheese. I'd always cut me a biiig chunk and sit on the back porch enjoying every bit. We'd mix the peanut butter with that thick syrup they'd give her so it would be easier to swallow. Now, weekends were our favorite because she would cook up a huge pot of those pork-n-bean with some cut-up hot dogs in it. I still don't know what she put in it but boy oh boy was it delicious ! I had to hold my nose when I drunk that milk though just to get it down it was awful. And, those eggs, horrible !! :)

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