At Ord Community Commissary near Monterey, Calif., there’s fresh produce when you first walk in, ice cream, and meat in the back.
“Oh, we’ve got everything. We have lamb, we have veal,” says Commissary Officer Alex King who manages the store. “Sushi is a big hit here. The customers are very much appreciative of that.”
What makes the commissary different from a regular grocery store is who shops here – military troops, retirees and their families – and the savings they receive at the checkout counter.
“We try to offer just around 30 percent savings on all products,” says King.
Commissaries set prices at cost plus 5 percent. That small profit goes toward store remodeling or building new locations. The pricing structure also helps maintain consistent pricing no matter where around the world troops are stationed.
It’s 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 is costing 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 the subsidy.
“I think the DOD is going after the commissaries because they’re looking at it as one extra cost that maybe they could get rid of,” says Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Analysis with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The practical question is: Are we getting good value on the money we spend on 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 that $1.4 billion for other purposes, things that we might get more benefit out of?”
Eileen Huck, of the National Military Family Association, thinks that the $1.4 billion is being spent well now.
“It’s something that’s really important to military families,” she says.
Huck 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.
“It’s the place where you go to run into other military friends and connect with the community,” she says. “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 Walmart or a Costco.”
But in the age of big-box stores, more and more commissary shoppers have options they didn’t have before.
Sergeant First Class Paul Pressley and his wife Amanda Gospodnetich are stationed in Monterey. They can leave their home and pass half a dozen groceries stores and a Costco before getting to the commissary.
“And if we’re going that far, we might as well go the extra two miles to go to Walmart where we can get clothes and everything all at once,” Gospodnetich says.
They shop at the commissary every once and awhile to stock up on pantry items. But low prices aren’t always the most important thing.
“We have three kids, and so you gotta really get in the car and move, and every time we do that it adds 15 minutes to our trip, so once you got your freezer items, you don’t really want to do that,” Pressley says.
And while the $1.4 billion that the military spends on commissaries might save troops money on groceries, it can’t get those 15 minutes back.
This story is part of a project we’re calling “Back at Base,“ in which NPR — along with public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America’s troops where they live.