What started last year as a one-time cheese giveaway has ballooned into an expensive federal program involving millions of pounds of cheese, butter, and dry milk.
Few people would argue with the logic of President Reagan's decision to pare bulging dairy surplus inventories by giving the taxpayer-bought goods to the nation's neediest. Washington paid dairy farmers almost $2 billion in price supports last year for close to that many pounds of products; it pays another $ 10 million a month to store them.
Congress has frozen dairy price supports at current levels for the next two years, but this means the taxpayer tab is expected to be every bit as high through 1984 as it is now.
The problem is that even giving something away can cost money. Some state governments, food banks, and local charitable agencies, which pitched in during what was seen as an emergency, now find themselves burdened with paper work and administrative costs they never expected.
The administration has also stepped up efforts to distribute surplus food overseas. Agriculture Secretary John Block last month announced an expanded program for shipping the dairy surplus abroad. The food would be distributed through both government-to-government contacts and private chartitable agencies registered with the government.
According to Jim Schlick, the Department of Agriculture's assistant deputy administrator for commodity operations, estimates of the size of the new program range from 50 million up to 300 million additional pounds of dairy products shipped each year. Last year, the US distributed some 300 million pounds, primarily nonfat dry milk.
As with the domestic program, however, there are distribution problems. Mr. Schlick cites two: ''competition'' from the European Economy Community, which has for years given away lots of milk products; and the expense of shipping goods like butter and cheese, that are bulky and need refrigeration.
In Florida, one of three states taking part in a federal pilot project giving away nonfat dry milk, such local charitable agencies as Lutheran Social Services and the Salvation Army have pulled out of the program.
''When Washington started to give away the presidential cheese, it sounded like a one-time affair,'' says Frieda Hutchison, director of Florida's Food Distribution Service. ''Pretty soon we were told that butter was coming and that we were going to be a pilot state for dry-milk distribution. Then we were told there was even more cheese and more butter. . . . But no one really thought through the full impact of all this, and it's just beginning to surface.''
Another federal pilot project - giving away surplus butter, dry milk, and cheese through seven food-bank sites around the country - requires extensive paper work. Pam Bennett of Gleaners Food Bank in Indianapolis says in the nine months the pilot project has been under way there, the agency has paid $498 to handle the food. But the record-keeping requirements have cost her organization more than $10,000.
''I'd rather see these commodities feed people than be dumped in the ocean or fed to the hogs, but the strings are getting heavy and very expensive,'' she says.
Alex Birman, director of the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, another site of the pilot project now slated to continue through 1983, agrees that the demonstration program is ''administratively cumbersome.''
Pat Kearney, a spokesman for the US Department of Agriculture's Food and Consumer Services Office, says the paper work is necessary. Congress wants to assess the potential of distributing surplus commodities through food banks, she says, without sacrificing health, safety, and accountability standards. And, she adds, the federal government already is paying a large enough chunk of the bills involved.
''We buy the products initially, store them, ship them, process them,'' she says. ''We've really taken on the lion's share of the costs.''
No one knows how long the program will last. ''It won't be temporary if price supports for dairy products continue,'' says Pam Bennett of the Gleaners Food Bank. ''As long as the administration feels it is not appropriate to store the goods - and I agree - there's really no end in sight.''
Some observers in Washington say they are concerned that the giveaways may signal a change in federal policy.
''As I see it, we're changing from a country where the poor, with food stamps , can shop like anyone else to one where people stand in line for the dole,'' insists Geoffrey Becker of the Community Nutrition Institute. ''Is this just an emergency one-time giveaway until the dairy surplus is down or are we replacing food stamps? These leftovers for the poor are no substitute for the adequate funding of federal food and other social welfare programs.''
''We're not setting up another program,'' counters the USDA's Pat Kearney. ''As soon as the surplus is gone, the program is gone.''