The commissary has taken a beating over the last year. We’ve heard reporters claim they are a lavish luxury offering gourmet foods and a vast selection of ketchup. And the last uproar arising after reports that the DoD had called for a plan to close all state-side commissaries in an effort to save just over a billion dollars from the Defense Department budget.
It is impressive to see our community rally together and raise a collective voice to save, what for many of us, is a necessity. But where is the counter-voice of those of us who don’t make the commissary part of our regular lives? Where is the discussion about alternatives and solutions that would allow us to maintain our tight budgets while helping to trim the defense budget?
Instead of a balanced discussion about this issue, all I see is a one-sided, impassioned plea to keep a program, that if we were facing a similar cost-consuming situation in our personal lives, we would be quick to cut or be motivated to find an alternative solution.
And perhaps what bothers me even more, are all of those voices raise in protest that demonstrate a lack of understanding of the issue. Things like suggesting that we close the PX instead of the commissary. Things like insisting that we cut all the government civilians to save the money in the budget that will allow us to keep all of our benefits. Things like insisting that our elected officials in Washington give up their life-time salaries and the free college for their children so that our lives can continue as is. There is nothing we hate more as a community then when people spread fallacies and misconceptions about our life, and yet I see so many of us doing the same thing here. So can we clear a few things up?
Get Rid of the PX
Sacrificing the PX will not solve the commissary problem. Even though many of us would happily say we can live without it, the truth is the PX is run by AAFES, a self-supporting organization that doesn’t use any taxpayer dollars to operate. Axing the PX only eliminates jobs for many military spouses and does nothing to help trim the budget. Cutting the PX does not solve our commissary problem.
Get Rid of Government Civilians
Having been a hard-working, dedicated government civilian in the past, this is so hard for me to hear. Are there lazy workers within the civilian ranks? Yes, of course. But I would wager to say that all of us could name a service member that deserves that same recognition. A great number of government civilians are veterans and military spouses. There are programs that specifically focus on getting government jobs for vets and spouses. Are we really saying that we should cut those programs and all of these jobs? Think about the impact that would have on our community. Probably much greater than having to spend a little bit more money on our groceries by shopping off base.
Ironically, the biggest cost of keeping the commissaries running is the labor. Commissary employees are government employees. And of those 18,000 employees, 12,000 of them are military family members. Cut those jobs and who will stock shelves and run the registers? Are we prepared to designate service members for commissary duty? When the government closed, commissaries closed because they had no workers. Cutting civilian jobs doesn’t solve our commissary problem.
Get Rid of All the Crazy Benefits for Congress
While I understand, and in many ways agree, that if Congress wants to cut our pay and benefits, they should be willing ante up with cuts to their own pay. But insisting that they give up their “lifetime pay” and “free college option for their children” doesn’t solve our issue either. It doesn’t help us, because it just isn’t true. To draw a full pension (80% of their salary), a member of Congress must serve for twenty years and be 50 years of age or older. Can they earn a partial pension for less service? Yes, they can after five years of service, but they can only draw it after they turn 50 years old.
The only time they can draw a pension before 50 years of age is if they have served for 25 years. Once they hit that milestone, they can draw a full pension at any time, though the youngest that would even be possible is 43. And their children don’t get college for free. Not now and not ever. They have to pay just like the rest of us. Insisting that monies be cut from places that money doesn’t exist, doesn’t solve our commissary problem.
Working With a Tight Budget
To be clear, I understand that the commissary is beneficial. I remember the days of trying to make a tight budget work. Two children under two on an E4 budget was tough. I know that shopping at the commissary helped us stretch our dollars and I am exceedingly thankful. But that was 12 years ago and things have changed quite a bit since then. The commissary, while useful to many is a problem. It is broken and with a billion dollar price tag, it is not something we can just absorb by cutting a few corners here and there.
I know, by now, many folks who are reading this are getting angry, their fingers poised over the keyboard read to tap out all of the reasons why I am out of my mind, but bear with me for a few minutes and I’ll try to explain the reasons that have led me to this point of view.
Reason #1: The Commissary Saves Us Tons of Money
A recent DeCA study “proved” that shopping at the commissary saves customers money. But the problem with the study is that they only compare name-brand items to name-brand items and fail to take into account the thousands of generic or store-brand options offered by major grocery chains. These products often cost the same or less than the name-brand products at the commissary.
With so many national chains offering military discounts and double and triple coupon days, it is not impossible to make a food budget go as far, it just takes a little more work and planning. I was surprised by the suggestion that the meat and produce offered by the commissary was better or equivalent quality than at national grocery chains. My personal experience has been exactly the opposite. Buying local and buying in season can also help stretch a budget. With two teenage boys that would gnaw the woodwork if we didn’t keep them fed, our food budget is almost always on my mind. We buy what’s on sale, we use coupons and we manage to make it work without the commissary.
[Read USMC Life’s study comparing Commissary costs to local grocery stores including Target, Walmart, and Costco to find out which retailer brought home the biggest savings to consumers]
Reason #2: An Alternative Was Offered
And though the infamous “Ketchup-Gate” article didn’t take the right tact when talking about this issue, the article did offer what might be the solution to all of our troubles. According to the article, an executive at Wal-Mart reached out with a proposal:
“[Wal-Mart] would provide active-duty troops, their spouses and retirees with a discount equivalent to the commissary’s prices on the same goods in its stores. The company would apply the discount by scanning a shopper’s military identification card at the cash register.
The Wal-Mart executive also sent data showing that the company has stores less than 10 miles from 70 percent of domestic commissaries.”
Wal-Mart offered to provide all ID-carrying folks, active duty, reserve, and veterans alike, the same pricing they would have received at the commissary. Our tight budgets could still see the benefit of the low prices offered by the commissary and we could shave a billion dollars off the defense budget. The powers that be didn’t just reject this plan, they didn’t even consider it. How does that make any sense? Are the commissaries really necessary because they offer us the pricing we need to stock our pantries and keep our families well fed on a tight budget or is there something else? Is the benefit somehow less of a benefit if it is offered outside of the walls of a DeCA managed commissary?
And the argument could be made that if we go this route, we still lose all of those military family member jobs, but since Wal-Mart has also recently offered to find a job for any veteran who wants one, it’s not such a stretch to think they might be willing to negotiate the hiring of commissary civilians to help with the new influx of regular customers.
This is just one alternative, but I have no doubt that if we put some effort into looking for others, there are plenty of national grocery chains that would be willing to step up to help.
Is the Benefit Worth It?
I know my view is contrary to what many folks believe. The truth is, I don’t want the commissaries to close. I understand the value they provide for many members of our community. But this is not a question of the commissaries being beneficial; this is a question of whether that benefit is worth a billion dollars. With viable alternatives out there, it seems irresponsible of us not to consider our options and look at the big picture. Our life is all about change and rolling with the punches whether we are talking about the commissary or our next duty station. We don’t have to sacrifice the benefits we need and want, we just have to be willing to consider alternative ways to keep them.
About the Author: Veronica Jorden is a military spouse who helps authors independently publish as the founder of First Page, Last Page. In her own words, “Sometimes the pursuit of one passion leads you to another. I love to write, and will always write, will always be writing. And now, I’ll be reading more, too!”