Empty shelves at commissaries? Officials aim to beef up the supply

by Tommy Grant

VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia — As military families face empty shelves and high prices at grocery stores on base, Defense Commissary Agency officials are digging for answers.

The organization is working on transforming its entire supply chain, Defense Commissary Agency Director John Hall told Military Times in a recent interview here.

The commissary agency has embarked on an “exploratory effort” with Deloitte to examine the process of stocking stores, from the time a product is ordered until it reaches the dock, Hall said. Its supply chain faced sporadic problems even before the coronavirus pandemic upended industry with production delays, cost spikes and staff shortages.

“There will be some things we’ll probably be able to do really quickly to make things better,” Hall said. “But to make it really better in the long run, I think we’re going to have to go through some transformation of the supply chain.”

For military families, supply chain problems translate to empty commissary shelves. That’s become particularly disruptive for troops stationed in South Korea.

The wife of one soldier stationed at Camp Humphreys, outside Pyeongtaek, said commissary shortages have caused hardships for families there. The Army installation is among the U.S. military’s largest overseas bases at around 40,000 troops, civilian employees, contractors and their families.

Patricia Garcia said many families have begun shopping off-post and planning ahead to order nonperishable items from Walmart, Target and Amazon. But she’s concerned that’s not always an option for young families with limited finances, and some items aren’t available off-post, either.

Garcia provided multiple photos of bare shelves, with goods like beans, tomato sauce and tortillas in short supply. In one recent week, some small red potatoes were the only option in stock.

“What grocery store runs out of potatoes?” she said.

“There are no shortages in the exchange that I’ve noticed, and we go there just as frequently,” she added.

Commissary officials had a commitment from some product carriers that they could reach South Korea from the West Coast within 16 days, starting in January, Hall said. But “they’ve not yet met those standards,” he said.

“They had some maintenance issues. I’m not sure where they’re at on resolving those issues,” he said. “If we can get 16-day transit times to Korea, that’s going to solve many of our supply chain problems there.”

Cutting that delivery time has been Hall’s focus since taking the helm of the commissary agency in June 2023, when the trip to South Korea took 42 days.

Addressing supply chain problems can help officials raise the overall in-stock rate, or the percentage of goods that are available at a given time, for commissaries to 98%. Right now, the figure stands at 95% for commissaries overall.

“95% is good, but [the difference between 95% and 98%] is that’s $200 million of product that’s not available to our customers on a yearly basis,” Hall said.

According to information provided by a commissary official at the American Logistics Association conference in March, the in-stock rate for commissaries in South Korea was 91.6% in January. The average in-stock rate for commissaries in the lower 48 states stood at 95.7% in January; for overseas stores, it was 94.1%.

Officials are working with industry suppliers and placing orders for more deliveries to the commissaries where the need is greatest. In some cases, they have airlifted critical items — such as frozen, dry and chilled products — to South Korea and elsewhere.

Even if food does make it to commissary shelves, its quality may be questionable.

Garcia said there’s even been an issue with some boxed products, like cereal, which have tasted like soap and cleaning supplies. The commissaries will replace the item if customers take it back to the store, she said, “but the soap thing comes up every other week.”

Keith Desbois, a spokesman for commissary stores in the Pacific, said the issue has been addressed with the product distributor.

“Non-food products were accidentally loaded [alongside] food products before being shipped overseas,” he said. “Due to the long shipping time required to get the product to our overseas stores, this contributed to the off-taste of certain food products.”

“Health officials inspected the food products and found no risk to patron safety,” he added.

The $15 cantaloupe

Garcia said families at Camp Humphreys are also complaining about high prices, particularly for fruits and vegetables.

Jalapeño peppers at the Humphreys commissary were selling for $5.89 a pound, compared to $1.28 a pound in Arizona, she said. One cantaloupe was $15.

Garcia said she spent $305 for groceries at the commissary in early March, then ran all of the items through the Walmart app.

“It would have been $230 in Arizona where my family is,” she said. “That’s per week for a family of three. When the typical Army assignment is two years, that’s nearly $8,000 extra we’re spending on groceries compared to what we’d be spending in the U.S.”

Celery was priced at $17 a bunch, although it was recently reduced to $2.99, after the commissary went to local sources to supply the stores, Garcia said.

Buying produce and some other products locally overseas “is something we need to do more of,” Hall said. In a number of overseas areas, commissary officials have sought local sources for certain products where they are available and meet U.S. veterinary standards.

Grocery prices have risen in part because of the cost of transporting products overseas. Last year, the commissary agency spent $93 million moving products overseas, Hall said.

“We have to factor that into the prices of what we charge overseas,” he said. “That’s a real constraining factor for us.”

Years ago, the agency received taxpayer dollars to cover the cost of that transportation so it could provide products to overseas military customers at prices similar to those in stateside commissaries. But that funding is no longer available.

Prices for fruits and vegetables worldwide fluctuates daily, depending on availability, the season, and from where they’re sourced, commissary officials said. Commissary personnel and contractors are trying to find higher-quality produce and fairer prices.

“We have also assigned additional [commissary agency] representatives to commissaries in the Pacific to review the quality and pricing of products and to work with the contractor and our stores to improve these issues,” Desbois said. “Quality and affordability are at the forefront of our focus. … We will continue to work diligently until we succeed.”

A main goal of the commissary agency’s supply chain study is to lower costs for suppliers and, ultimately, for customers.

“Our suppliers deal with [the commissary agency] differently than they deal with commercial grocery chains,” Hall said. “Their costs to supply DeCA are higher than their costs to supply commercial grocery chains because of the supply chain.”

“I want to lower the supplier costs, because I’m convinced they will lower the costs to DeCA in the form of lower prices” for customers, he said.

Hall also wants to get more control over the supply chain. The commissary agency currently doesn’t have a contractual relationship with the companies distributing products to stores from the suppliers — the growers and manufacturers.

Gaining more control over the supply chain would improve the commissary agency’s ability to account for costs and product availability, Hall said.

“The contractual relationship is between the suppliers and the distributors. So I don’t say who stocks what, where, and I don’t say who uses what distributor,” he said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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