A Final Thought: Lining Up For Government Cheese


By Mitch Allen

In the early 1980s, the media discovered that the federal government was storing millions of pounds of surplus cheese at a time when many people were experiencing food insecurity. As a result, Ronald Reagan, who had recently cut the budget of the federal food stamp program, ordered the release of 560 million pounds of cheese. It was distributed not only to the needy and to food banks, but also to families on social security. My grandparents were receiving social security benefits at the time, so they qualified.

So on a January morning in 1982, at age 19, I found myself standing in a long line with my grandfather at the Phenix Municipal Stadium in Phenix City, Alabama (there is no “o” in the town name) to get a few pounds of cheese.

It was freezing, I was underdressed, and we were standing on cold concrete which has the unique ability to suck the heat right out of a human body. We’d been waiting an hour when I finally said, “Cokey, why don’t we just go to the grocery store and buy some cheese? We don’t need to get it from the government.”

My grandfather, who had spent much of the Great Depression literally riding the rails, turned to me and said, “You don’t understand, boy. That’s not the government’s cheese. It’s my cheese. I paid for it with my tax dollars and I’m not leaving until I get my damn cheese.”

Generally, I don’t tolerate long lines. That’s why you’ll never see me at a Starbucks. All those cars lined up around the building to buy a $5 cup of coffee? The underlying reason is simple, but not obvious: When I ask audiences at marketing seminars if Starbucks is expensive, virtually everyone raises their hand. Then I point out that the coffee chain is so popular because they are actually the cheapest at what they do. You see, Starbuck’s doesn’t sell coffee; they sell a moment of personal indulgence that says, “I’m worth it.” Compare a $5 cup of joe to a massage, a manicure, dinner at a fancy restaurant, a new purse, or a new bass boat, and you realize what a remarkable value Starbucks is.

But there is one international chain I have yet to understand: Aldi. Many of my friends can’t stop talking about how much they love this grocery store, but I hate it. The lines are too long, the aisles are too narrow, there is no music or attractive lighting, and no one is smiling. And nothing is merchandised properly. Everything is still in the cardboard box it came in. It’s like going to a cocktail party and seeing that the hosts are still in their pajamas. Worse, I have to put a quarter in a slot to get a buggy, then they hold my quarter hostage until I return the buggy.

First, where am I going to get a quarter? I haven’t carried cash or coinage in years. I rely exclusively on my debit card. I haven’t even seen a quarter since about 2016. Yet I get what they’re doing. Instead of paying someone to retrieve the carts from the parking lot, management has learned that people will return them themselves to get their quarter back. It’s a psychological ploy. If I stood in the parking lot of a traditional grocery store—say, Giant Eagle—and offered people a quarter to return their carts to the store, no one would take me up on it. That’s because it’s not their quarter. The quarter in the slot at Aldi—that’s their quarter, and by golly they’re going to get it back in the same way my grandfather was intent on getting his cheese.

I know, I know, I sound like a snob, and I probably am, but that’s not the point. I always return my cart (and sometimes other people’s carts) to wherever the store owner indicates. I don’t need to be bribed with a quarter to do the right thing. It makes me feel like they don’t trust me.

Compare this with the new Amazon store rumored to be opening in the Montrose area of Fairlawn. Apparently, there are no lines, no checkout at all. You just put your groceries in your cart and leave, and somehow Jeff Bezos and his minions magically charge your credit card.

Speaking of ol’ Jeff, his current net worth is $190 billion. Not considering compound interest, you’d have to earn $100,000 a day for 5,205 years to make that kind of money, which, by the way, would buy you an awful lot of cheese.


Categories: Smart Living