The 21st century has been a time of transformational change for the U.S. military – and no less so for the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), the agency that has, in some form, sold groceries and household goods to uniformed service members and their families for 150 years. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the military mobilized for war, service members were reminded that the benefits of DeCA’s nearly 240 stores, located in 13 countries, went far beyond the money they saved military families: As DeCA’s historian, Peter Skirbunt, Ph.D., has pointed out, the commissaries helped maintain morale among service members and their families by making American-style groceries and brands available all over the world, offering stability, support, and a sense of community even as military personnel were transferred and deployed on unaccompanied tours.
In the nation’s all-volunteer armed forces, the National Guard and Reserve components, which comprise about 38 percent of the military’s uniformed personnel, have played a historically significant role in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, performing to high standards under the strain of an unprecedented number of long-term deployments. Before 9/11, as the role of Reservists increased to accommodate declining numbers of active-duty troops, DeCA had already launched an effort to extend commissary benefits to Guard and Reserve families; in 1998, for example, the number of annual commissary shopping trips for Reservists was doubled, from 12 to 24, an authorization in addition to the full-time privileges extended whenever Reservists were on active duty. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2004 authorized unlimited shopping privileges for Reservists.
For many of these Reservists, however, the problem remained that the commissaries weren’t located where their families lived. In the United States, more than half the Reserve and National Guard units were headquartered more than 20 miles from the nearest commissary. DeCA responded by introducing several initiatives designed to enable and encourage Guard and Reserve members to take advantage of their commissary benefit, most significantly by bringing the commissaries to these sites in the form of truckload case lot sales, which were formalized in 2008 when DeCA launched its “Bringing the Benefit to You” campaign.
In an on-site sale, products are trucked to the site, a store is set up, and customers shop and pay for their purchases, with savings at approximately the same level as would be found at the commissaries. Since 2008, DeCA’s Guard and Reserve On-site Sales program has worked with individual units, industry partners, and commissary store directors to host nearly 830 events, resulting in total sales of more than $47 million.
These sales, which average two to three days, aren’t exclusive to members of the sponsoring unit; they’re open to any authorized commissary shopper, though the products offered are typically determined by shopper preferences at each location. Event planners refine product assortments, which can feature fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, frozen or chilled foods, and even some deli and bakery items, based on previous sales. While the program began with high-volume case lot sales, customers are increasingly able to buy in quantities that suit their needs.
At the most basic level, the benefit of the commissaries is financial – customers can purchase grocery items at cost, plus a 5 percent surcharge that covers construction and maintenance costs – but, as Skirbunt points out, the commissaries also have a cultural benefit, and in recent years, DeCA has redoubled its efforts to improve the lifelong health and happiness of service members and their families.
For information about on-site sales – dates, locations, and points of contact – Reservists and their families are encouraged to visit DeCA’s website at www.commissaries.com/guard_reserve_sales.cfm.
Improving Quality of Life for Military Families: Programs and Initiatives
At the most basic level, the benefit of the commissaries is financial – customers can purchase grocery items at cost, plus a 5 percent surcharge that covers construction and maintenance costs – but, as Skirbunt points out, the commissaries also have a cultural benefit, and in recent years, DeCA has redoubled its efforts to improve the lifelong health and happiness of service members and their families. In 2000, for example, to recognize the contributions of military families to the readiness of the nation’s fighting force – and of the role of the commissary in military communities – DeCA launched the Scholarships for Military Children Program. The program seeks to fund an academic scholarship, primarily through the generosity of manufacturers and suppliers, to be awarded annually for each commissary.