Atlanta — The temperature outside was in the 90s, but inside the huge refrigerated warehouse near here, it was a shivery 33 degrees. Several million pounds of cheese, packed in boxes and large drums, formed long rows of tall stacks that towered overhead.
This is no ordinary food stockpile. The American taxpayers paid for this - as well as another 1 billion pounds of cheese now in storage across the nation. They also paid for the 1.4 billion pounds of powdered milk and 500 million pounds of butter the government currently has in storage.
Such stockpiles are getting bigger as the government continues to buy surplus food. This practice is designed to prop up the prices dairy farmers receive for their products at the market. Similar programs have resulted in huge grain stockpiles.
The nation's pantry is overflowing - at a time when signs of hunger in America are increasing.
The federal response to this dilemma - stepping up free distribution of stockpiled cheese and other products to the needy - is drawing mixed reviews from leaders of private groups that feed the hungry, from US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and from some congressional officials.
And like most issues related to American agriculture, there are no easy solutions.
''We really don't see the end of it (the growing stockpiles),'' says USDA economist Barry Klein. Dairy production is running about 10 to 12 percent over consumption, he says. When prices fall below a set level, the government, in accord with federal agricultural programs, automatically becomes the buyer.
Private groups helping the hungry, while not wanting to stop the handouts of free cheese and other commodities, say the distribution program has cost them a lot of money and time.
Federal legislation passed by Congress in early August provides for funding to states and private groups for distribution costs. Since the distributions began in December 1981, this cost had been borne by private groups. The distribution program was cut back this spring but is being increased again, after prodding from Congress.
Some 40 million pounds of cheese is to be given to the needy each month for up to two years, under current plans.
No one in or out of government is saying the distribution of cheese and other government-held food is aimed at solving America's hunger problem. June Tanoue, who runs a food program for the poor in Portland, Ore., says, ''You can only eat so many cheese sandwiches.'' What the hungry really need most are jobs, she says.
Bill Bolling, who heads the Atlanta Community Food Bank, says he has ''mixed emotions'' when he compares the cost and time requirements for his group to the benefits of the distribution. The food bank is part of the Second Harvest Network, a nationwide coalition of private groups with strong church support. Last year, the network collected and distributed 20 million pounds of food to the poor. The food, considered unmarketable because it was mispackaged or is too old, still is edible and is donated by manufacturers, distributors, and retailers in the grocery industry.
The government's free food distributions ''have helped some families, (but) it's temporary,'' says Sandra Robertson, director of the Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger. ''It only increases our awareness of how many millions of people are suffering.''
Reagan administration officials do not deny the need. ''We recognize there's a much greater need for help now than before,'' says John Bode, deputy assistant secretary for food and consumer services at the Agriculture Department. He says funding for food stamps - the government's main food program for the poor - has increased 45 percent between 1980 and 1983, despite the administration's budget changes to slow the rate of spending increases. Without the changes, the growth rate would have been 75 percent.
The changes have been ''judiciously made,'' Mr. Bode says. Critics say the changes have hurt some of the poor.
How to reduce the growing stockpiles of commodities such as cheese? Bode says the key is a lower price-support program for dairy farmers, something the dairy industry lobbies strongly against.
As for the cheese manufacturers, Robert Anderson, executive director of the National Cheese Institute, says the free distribution program is a ''good one'' if directed to the needy and not to the more affluent.