Commissary Catch 22

Commissary Catch 22

By: Jamie Naughton


In budget cutting exercises, commissaries are often easy pickings for the chopping block. Critics say the $1.4 billion Congress spends on groceries for military families could be better spent on other purposes.


The almost 12 million patrons authorized to use the commissary tell a different story. Being able to buy groceries at cost, with a five percent surcharge, can save military families big bucks. DeCA, the Defense Commissary Agency, estimates that a military family of four can save almost $3,000 a year.


This year’s defense bill calls for DoD to figure out how to make the commissary system cost neutral. The report, due in March, will look at how DoD can privatize commissaries while keeping the same level of customer savings and satisfaction. It will also look at strategically closing commissaries in markets with competing shopping options, and the willingness of commercial grocers to provide eligible commissary patrons discounts.


If cutting funding without increasing costs for consumers seem like conflicting ideas, it’s because they are. It’s unlikely that commissaries will be able to take the budget cut without passing the buck to shoppers. “The language of the report establishes standards that are impossible to meet,” said Karen Golden, Deputy Director at MOAA.


Commissary patrons are particularly sensitive to price fluctuations. For many commissary shoppers, particularly junior enlisted members without access to off base shopping, they are literally a captive audience.


According to RAND, a consultancy, “the elimination of the appropriation, while reducing the DoD budget, comes at a cost borne primarily by those currently and formerly in the armed forces.” RAND’s findings go on to note that increasing commissary pricing may have negative effects on retention and recruitment, cuts to Morale, Well-Being, and Recreation programs, and possible changes in the calculated cost of living adjustment.


Previously, some national chains expressed willingness to provide discounts to military families to match commissary prices. But to date, no major retailer has made good on the offer.


After the report, DoD has the authority to launch a two year study on privatization in five of the largest stateside commissary markets.


MOAA will continue to work with Congress and make sure there are no significant changes to this critical benefit without looking at all the facts and the broad range of consequences.

Jamie Naughton serves as Assistant Director, Government Relations - See more at: