Thanks to a Washington Post article earlier this month, which highlighted a proposal pitched three years ago to trim Defense Department spending by cutting commissaries, this military benefit has become the subject of debate.
Just questioning the necessity of the on-post grocery stores provided through taxpayer funds sent many military bloggers and columnists into a frenzy.
“Commissaries provide a nonpay benefit to military members — active duty, Guard and Reserve, retirees and their families — that supplements their quality of life, said Nancy O’Nell, California-based spokeswoman for west and Pacific-area commissaries, including the two at Fort Hood. “Commissaries are a core military family support element that contributes to family readiness, enhances the quality of life for America’s military and their families, and helps recruit and retain the best and brightest men and women to serve their country.”
Because the Defense Commissary Agency doesn’t make a profit, it sells grocery items at cost, O’Nell said. Plus, there is no tax on anything purchased in the store, which can mean big savings.
Dianna Gee, a Walmart spokesperson, was unable to confirm information in the Post article from June 1, which stated that Walmart offered to provide a similar discount for military families should the Defense Department no longer offer commissaries.
However, the commissary does add a 5 percent surcharge to a customer’s purchase total before coupons at checkout, O’Nell said via email. This money helps improve commissary facilities, as well as store construction, maintenance and repair, and equipment (including store-level information technology equipment). The surcharge has been the same since 1983, she said.
“Other sources of revenue for commissaries come from ... coupon handling fees ... and recycling,” O’Nell said. “Income from these revenue sources are deposited in the surcharge collection fund.”
Salaries, utilities, other costs of operating the commissary system and above-store capital investments are funded through appropriations from Congress, which is why the furloughs beginning next month will impact stores.
Spc. Donald Jones, 615th Aviation Support Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, said he prefers to do most of his shopping at the commissary. He said the savings he gets for feeding his family of six are worth the drive from his Killeen home.
“The commissary has better prices on meats,” Jones said. “We try to stay on a budget. The way we shop is we buy snacks, but we buy what we need first.”
He said he also uses apps on his smartphone to ensure he’s getting good deals.
Other shoppers said they hit a variety of stores to take advantage of certain deals and offers only available there.
“I haven’t even set foot in (the commissary),” said Adi Fink, a military spouse who doesn’t see the commissary savings as being worth the drive from her Harker Heights home. She teaches off-post couponing and savings classes and prefers to shop at a variety of stores to find savings when feeding her family of four — even freezing and dehydrating fresh products to get the savings of bulk shopping.
For produce and eggs, Fink shops at Temple’s Aldi, as well as ordering from Bountiful Baskets. For meat, she visits Killeen’s locally owned Cosper’s Meat Market, and H-E-B for other necessities such as sugar, flour, milk and cereal.
“We usually try to shop only once or twice a month,” Fink said. “Meal prepping and menu planning are the easiest ways to save money, no matter where you shop. You’re able to see what exactly you need for your family’s meals and preparing as much as you can ahead of time will help cut down on your time cooking them.”
Kim McManes, a military spouse, agreed with Fink, and said she only visited the commissary for bulk sales to buy cheaper laundry detergent. Now she’s learned to make her own detergent and doesn’t buy it at all anymore.
“We are clearly on a budget,” she said. “What family wouldn’t be that is not rich? We do not shop at the commissaries, because all they carry is name-brand food items.”
McManes said she sticks to a list and shops primarily at H-E-B, with stops at the Mrs. Baird’s Bakery in Killeen and Cosper’s for meat. Each month, she spends about $150 to feed her family of three.
“We used to live paycheck to paycheck, but not too much anymore because we budget,” McManes said.
The commissary agency boasts customers save more than 30 percent on purchases when compared to commercial prices. The 30 percent, O’Nell said, is an average savings for all locations and may vary in some areas.
This number was derived from comparing prices in a comprehensive database, provided by Nielsen, of actual prices from commercial grocery stores and commissaries to determine the savings on all items that can be scanned and are sold at commissaries within the 48 contiguous states. More than 35,000 grocery items were included in the 2012 analysis, O’Nell said.
“In fiscal 2012 alone, we saved our customers more than $2.76 billion on their grocery purchases when compared to commercial stores,” she said.
In a price comparison of 15 items conducted by the Herald, the commissary’s out-of-pocket total was the cheapest, but not by 30 percent. The on-post store was 8.4 percent cheaper than Texas-based H-E-B and 13.7 percent less than a trip to Walmart.