If a recent debate over U.S. military commissaries is any indication, the future of the government-subsidized grocery stores is an emotional issue. Many leaped to the commissaries’ defense this week, and some worried their Commissary was effectively getting ready to hold a going-out-of-business sale. You can fault some of the coverage, that may have overly simplified a complex and nuanced issue. The Military Times reported on “a budget-cutting plan to shut down commissaries.” Government Executive reported on projected savings “if the services did away with their own grocery stores.” And, mea culpa, Coupons in the News reported that “the government could save billions by shutting down military-run commissaries.”
The thing is, the proposal that’s at the heart of the debate doesn’t call on commissaries to be closed. Unless it actually does. It all depends on your intepretation.
Last month, U.S. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma released a report that proposed eliminating funding for several military programs, including non-military research, education and U.S.-based (not overseas) commissaries. His recommendation was based on a Congressional Budget Office proposal that recommends “the consolidation of commissary and exchange stores at each base.” In other words, not only the systems but the actual buildings would be combined. Exchange stores, which sell general merchandise, do not receive direct government subsidies, while the commissaries do.
So does folding commissaries into the exchange system, and selling groceries at the exchanges, constitute “closing the commissaries”? Yes, some argue in a literal sense, though the stores will still exist in a different form. A more expensive form – as the CBO goes on to say “the consolidated system would have to charge about 7 percent more for groceries and other merchandise” to offset the loss of the commissary subsidy. It recommends a “$400 average grocery allowance” to help military members pay the higher costs, which some complain is inadequate and jeopardizes the system’s appeal – thereby jeopardizing its ability to exist. The Coalition to Save Our Military Shopping Benefits warns that “the CBO’s proposal will result in a downward spiral in sales, ultimately resulting in the demise of the resale benefit for military families.”
Some commissary supporters say those who want to change the system need to leave well enough alone. “If cuts need to be made in the budget, they needing to be looking somewhere besides the Commissary,” Amy Duran of CommissaryDeals.com tells Coupons in the News. The Commissary, she says, does a lot to help its customers save, with exclusive sales, a liberal coupon policy and reliable service. “We all know there is excess and waste in the military,” she continues, “but the Commissary is not a piece of that. The Commissary is absolutely essential to the well-being of military families.”
With the possibility that consolidation will lead to closures in some form, some wonder whether Senator Coburn is being disingenuous in his report when he says “the on-base grocery store would not close down, it would just lose its taxpayer subsidy.” But the Senator insists he does not want to take away the ability of service members and their families to get their groceries on base – he just doesn’t think it’s necessary for taxpayers to fund a military-run grocery business. “The idea that Senator Coburn wants to shut down the commissaries, to see them padlocked and boarded up, is completely inaccurate,” a Coburn aide who did not want to be identified told Coupons in the News today. “The Senator does not support any proposal that would result in service members or their families not being able to shop for their groceries on base if they choose.”
Another option that has been discussed, though it’s not in Senator Coburn’s report or the CBO recommendation, is leasing grocery space to outside companies, in much the same way that U.S. military bases around the world currently host fast-food restaurants. Instead of military-run commissaries, shoppers on base could get their groceries at a Safeway, or a Kroger.
Ultimately, in this time of austerity, is there a risk that commissaries could close down? In short, yes. Would that mean service members would have nowhere to buy their groceries on base? No. All of the various proposals under consideration envision some form of grocery store, and grocery benefit, for those who serve. For now, though, they’re all just ideas, proposals and even posturing at the moment. Whether you believe any changes are imminent, depends on your faith in Washington’s ability to actually get something done.
Image source: Defense Commissary Agency