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The Bottom Line - Slowly Killing the Commissary

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April 10, 2014

By Col. Mike Hayden, USAF (Ret)

This year’s budget submission includes a Pentagon proposal to cut commissary subsidy funding. It is a backdoor way to slowly kill the commissary.

Currently, the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) operates 243 stores worldwide, with 178 stateside, and provides to servicemembers and retirees and their families groceries at-cost plus a 5-percent surcharge.

Commissaries provide a significant benefit to military families. The average family of four who shops exclusively at the commissary saves up to $4,500 annually and sees savings of up to 30 percent when compared to private grocery stores.

DeCA’s operations are subsidized to the tune of $1.4 billion a year. The proposal would eliminate $1 billion in the subsidy over a three-year period of time.

DoD reports that eliminating the subsidy will reduce the savings commissary shoppers enjoy from 30 percent to 10 percent over the “high-priced private” grocery stores and shoppers will see only “modest” savings over discount grocery stores.

 “We are really changing the deal,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, said to DoD witnesses. “That 30 percent of groceries (savings) that you were just taking away, that savings matters.”

Cutting the subsidy itself would significantly hit a family of four’s pocketbook — they would lose approximately $3,000 in purchasing power annually.

At real risk is patronage. Who in their right mind is going to drive past one Giant, one Safeway, and one Kroger’s on the way to the installation on a Saturday or Sunday to get a “modest” savings (which can be interpreted as less than a 10 percent savings)? You’ll waste more in gas than you’ll see in savings.

Oh, and commissaries and exchanges employ family members and retirees to the tune of 40 percent, placing their jobs at risk.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, voiced a similar concern saying, “Structural changes do have a ripple effect, and if the shopping becomes less at the commissary, eventually people will be less likely to shop at the base or post exchange.”

We couldn’t agree more. This fundamental change will have a serious ripple effect on other family support programs on the installation: base exchanges and especially morale, welfare, and recreation programs.

The bottom line: MOAA believes cutting the commissary subsidy is a backdoor way to slowly kill the commissary benefit. DoD, true to their word, said they are not directing any commissary to be closed. Yet without patrons, commissaries will face the ultimate “business decision” and will shutter and close. 

Send your legislators a MOAA-suggested message on this issue:

H.R. 4217 and S. 2075 – The Military Commissary Sustainment Act. Rep. J. Randy Forbes’ (D-VA) and Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-VA) respective House and Senate bills would prohibit a reduction in funding for the defense commissary system pending the report of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.


Copyright Military Officers Association of America. All rights reserved.

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  • Since 1979 when I first entered the military, the commissaries were always there as a service to the troops on the bases and as a promised benefit to the retirees. It would more than inconvenience to the base residents to have to shop in the community at most bases. On the Army bases I have lived and worked on, the grocery stores outside the base gates are not necessarily short trips. For those families of the troops who have to make those trips outside the gates, it increases their stress load to have to fight traffic, spend more on gasoline, and have to coordinate their trips around the taking care of their children.

    Despite what some negative publicity has stated, commissaries save the active duty families a significant amount of money every month, but by forcing them to go frequently off the base, it also collectively increases their vulnerability to traffic accidents and nighttime crime in parking lots and security threats. These are the families—mostly the spouses—who will be doing this shopping, not the military men or women who may be more prepared to handle crime or other actions against the military. On top of the added inconveniences and threats, there is no proposed raise in BAH for the difference in higher cost to use personal transportation and to pay higher food costs.

    The retired community including the Wounded Warriors and medically retired will lose more of their benefits with the closure of the commissary. Over the decades, many retirees have chosen to retire in areas that were reasonably close to military commissaries in order to take advantage of their benefits. By closing commissaries, it will decrease retiree benefits—even if by small percentages. But more than the loss of financial benefit is the loss of another benefit that was long touted as a "standard military benefit." In other words, the US government would renege on a long-standing tradition that was used widely in recruiting and retention of the best.

  • Why am I seeing the ghost of "David Chu" rise again ?? - even though he supposedly left the Pentagon/ASD and is now a member of some think tank relative to Defense matters?? I would have though his departure would have killed his obsession with doing away with the Commissary and Exchange systems. One would have thought that his obsession would amount to being a share-holder in the local Grocery stores and chains - he was at it constantly. Because of this, I am not sure the savings is 30% - suspect more like 10%. I know that the Service Station at Walter Reed NNMC Bethesda is more expensive than the local 7-11 in Gaithersburg. Maybe its time to find his "turnover file" and shred it!!

  • Please note the diversity of the comments. They seem to reflect the economic status of the family making the comments. MOAA should (by largely being staffed with former military personnel) be sensitive to this particular constituary. I applaud MOAA for traveling to the Hill to testify and fight for us, but many times the issue is with the recommendations of the DoD. If the DoD represents the military community, many if not most of these issues would disapprear. MOAA should be arm twisting the Service Chiefs and the JCS Staff to support the needs of the military community and stronly encourage them to convince the DoD civilian leadership of the appropriate way to go. I firmly bwelieve the Service Chiefs are the key element.For a particular service having to accept a particular weapons system that is not required or desired, is unblievable and borders on dodging feuduciary responsibilities.

  • I believe the realized cost savings are location dependent. As I look back on my 25 years of service I can name each duty station where it was more cost effective to go to the commissary or the local economy. Here in Norther Virgina it is most certainly beneficial to fight the traffic and go to the commissary. My family of four consumes roughly $800/month from the commissary. I could not tell you how much it would be at any of the local supermarkets because each time we've tried to do a full shopping trip we didn't even make it to checkout because the calculator already had us way past what we budgeted. Keep in mind the budget works just fine at any of the local commissaries.
    Wit that said, I am sure there could be some real cost savings in the commissary program if they looked at each store independently and reduced or closed those that cannot compete with the local economy. This way the commissaries in the high cost of living location can remain and not erode our retirement benefits.

  • Eliminate the commissaries, both in America & overseas. In these times there is no need for them.

  • Someday we will all wakeup and everything that was promised and earned will be taken away. They are slowly taking away benefits. Senior military leadership will not speak up for the troops or retirees, they are afraid they will lose their present jobs, next promotion, or asked to retire early. Hand puppets!

  • It starts - Today it's the commissary on the DoD, Sec Def, and Presidents's chopping block, tomorrow it'll be retirement benefits, TriCare, prescription re-embursements, housing entitlements, relocation re-embursements and still we shall be called on to go into harms way whenever it suits those in office.

    We need our commissaries to keep food on our tables and in the mouths of our families especially in Alaska, on overseas assignments, and in Hawaii. If CONUS commissaries are to be taken away give us legislation that gives us a break at our local grocery and big box stores.

  • Commissaries and exchanges are of particular importance to Hawaii and Alaska. The Jones Act, which requires the use of US carriers,which have limited competition and are more expensive, for shipping between US ports only affects them. Goods shipped from overseas to the east and west coasts may be shipped by cheaper foreign flag shipping. This drives up the cost of living in these two states. More importantly, it is another reneging of promises made when we entered the military.

  • Perhaps what is important is that the commissary is self sufficient and it returns money to those in the military.
    To me, it is an important benefit to keep.

  • I retired in 1990 and shop infrequently at Newport NAS and Hanscom AFB. The touted 30% cost savings is very anecdotal, and just on some niche items. Cosmetics, pet food occasionally, mayonnaise?, perhaps a handful of others including the usually tired produce.

    Yet I could rattle off a long list of savings much smaller than 30% on many items purchased much more often. Savings are frequent but very small overall. Yet DOD enjoys not having to pay property taxes, workers' comp, unemployment, disability, and liability insurance (among other things) on these locations, so one would expect prices much more below the competition off base.

    So even on a large shopping trip my overall savings (minus today's 5% surcharge!) amounts to less than my time, the four or five gallons of gas, wear and tear, etc.

    I retired at 20 from USAF in 1990, and recall this benefit had already been eroding noticeably then. I think the slide began a few years prior, perhaps when a surcharge and that mindset were first instituted -- and wasn't it originally 3% starting around early 1980s or so?

    Much later, nowadays, the deflated value of Commissaries seems mostly due to competition from Walmart and the sundry buying clubs assuming you live near enough to them. Here in the Northeast, and probably a lot of other locales, Commissaries aren't worth what they used to be. Marginal, at best now.

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