With More Big-Box Stores In Reach, Are Commissaries Still Needed? This year the U.S. military spent $1.4 billion to run nearly 240 stores that provide discount groceries to troops. Next year, the Department of Defense wants to cut $200 million from the subsidy.
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With More Big-Box Stores In Reach, Are Commissaries Still Needed?

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With More Big-Box Stores In Reach, Are Commissaries Still Needed?

With More Big-Box Stores In Reach, Are Commissaries Still Needed?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you have served in the military, then you've probably shopped at a commissary, those government-run grocery stores for troops and retirees get big discounts. Those savings come at a price to taxpayers, more than a billion dollars a year. And now the Pentagon is looking to cut its subsidy for commissaries. From member station KAZU in Monterey, Calif., Krista Almanzan reports.

KRISTA ALMANZAN, BYLINE: Yep, everything's where you'd expect it to be at the Ord Community Commissary near Monterey - fresh produce when you first walk in; ice cream, aisle 16; meat at the back.

ALEX KING: We've got everything, anything you can ask for. We have lamb. We have veal.

ALMANZAN: Alex King is manager here.

KING: Sushi - big hit here - the customers are very much appreciative of that.

ALMANZAN: What sets the commissary apart is who shops here - troops, retirees and their families - and the savings you notice at the checkout counter.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All righty, Sir.

KING: We try to offer just around 30 percent savings on all our products.

ALMANZAN: The commissary sets prices at just a little over cost, and that helps commissaries around the world maintain consistent pricing no matter where troops are stationed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, thank you for your service, Sir. Enjoy the rest of your day.

ALMANZAN: This is a benefit the government started offering after the Civil War, when Congress ordered the Army to sell goods to its troops. Over time, commissaries became part of their pay, a convenient, cheap way to shop. But that savings costs taxpayers. This year, the military spent $1.4 billion to run the system's nearly 240 stores. Next year, the Department of Defense wants to cut 200 million from that subsidy.

TODD HARRISON: I think DOD is going after the commissaries because, you know, they're looking at it as, you know, one extra cost that, you know, maybe they could get rid of.

ALMANZAN: Todd Harrison studies the defense budget with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

HARRISON: The practical question is, are we getting good value out of the money we spend on the commissaries as a form of compensation? Do people value it as much as it costs to provide, or would we be better served by using, you know, that $1.4 billion for other purposes, things that we might get more benefit out of?

EILEEN HUCK: It's something that's really important to military families.

ALMANZAN: Eileen Huck thinks that $1.4 billion is being spent well now. She's with the National Military Family Association. She says the subsidized savings offers troops a consistent grocery bill, no matter where they're stationed - overseas, in remote locations or expensive urban areas. And commissaries have intangible benefits.

HUCK: It's the place where you go to run into other military friends and connect with your community. So while it's intangible and obviously hard to measure, it's important to a lot of people and can't be replicated at a Wal-Mart or a Costco.

ALMANZAN: But in the age of Costco and Wal-Mart, more and more commissary shoppers do have options they didn't before. Sergeant First Class Paul Pressley and his wife Amanda Gospodnetich are stationed in Monterey. They can leave their home, pass half a dozen grocery stores and a Costco before getting to the commissary.

AMANDA GOSPODNETICH: If we're going that far, we might as well go the extra - what? - 2 miles to go to Wal-Mart where we can get clothes and everything all at once.

ALMANZAN: They shop at the commissary every once in a while to stock up on pantry items. But low prices aren't always the most important thing.

PAUL PRESSLEY: We have three kids, and so you got to really get in the car and move. And every time we do that, it adds 15 minutes to our trip. So once you got all your freezer items, you don't really want to do that.

ALMANZAN: And the billion dollars or so that the military spends on commissaries might save troops money on groceries, but it can't get those 15 minutes back.

For NPR News, I'm Krista Almanzan.

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