Some commissary customers in the Pacific are getting hit with a harsh new reality as the price of some fresh fruits and vegetables are spiking under the terms of new contracts.
Defense Commissary Agency officials say some adjustments have been made, and attributed part of the problem to the transition to the new contracts, which pass along more costs to customers.
Some products that were airlifted in at the start of the new contracts, which took effect Nov. 1, no longer are being airlifted because of the sharp increase in price, and availability of other produce that can be brought in by ship at cheaper cost.
While there are some similar trouble spots in Japan and South Korea, the problems have been more pronounced in Guam, sources said.
"Eating healthy is going to be hard. If prices are going to be like this, raise the COLA," wrote Laura Szelagiewicz, a military wife who lives on Guam, in a Facebook message.
She said commissary prices of some items have doubled or tripled, pushing them above prices in off-base stores.
"This is unacceptable! How can we afford to feed our families a healthy well-balanced meal if we can't even afford lettuce?! [Defense Commissary Agency] please fix things here in Guam," wrote military wife Kelsey Pauxtis-Thomas, on the commissary agency's Facebook page.
She posted a picture of a 22-ounce package of Romaine lettuce priced at $10.69.
Yet another spouse in Guam has written to Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asking him to "reevaluate the unfair cost of commissary produce to service members stationed in the Pacific," according to her Facebook page.
At the core of the problem was a budget-cutting move by DeCA officials to save the $48 million a year that it paid to ship fruits and vegetables to 29 commissaries in Japan, South Korea and Guam. Those overseas transportation costs are borne by taxpayers so that military customers have access to groceries of comparable cost, type and quality as commissary patrons in the U.S.
Under the new contracts implemented Nov. 1, the government no longer pays to ship the produce overseas. The contractors either get the produce from local sources in these areas, or bear the cost of shipping it from other countries, including the U.S.
And that cost is passed on to commissary customers in those areas.
DeCA officials said that since the new produce model for the Pacific began Nov. 1, there have been price fluctuations on some items, partly because of the contract transition process, and further exasperated by normal, seasonal price fluctuations for produce.
Because of a series of protests of the contract, the contractors — MPG West for Japan and South Korea, and International Distributors, Inc. for Guam — had only two days between the time the court ruled on the final protest and the time the contractors took over supplying the produce.
"We expect that in the long run the results of our new contract will be positive, with fresher fruits and vegetables available to our patrons," said DeCA spokesman Kevin Robinson. "We recognize that some prices will increase while others will definitely decrease."
He noted that not all prices have doubled or tripled, and some prices that have drawn the most attention — such as the $10.69 package of Romaine lettuce — have been corrected. In a list of 20 items DeCA provided to Military Times comparing prices in Guam under the previous contract to prices during the week of Dec. 13, nine items saw price increases ranging from 2 percent to 30 percent, while 11 items saw price drops ranging from 9 percent to 42 percent.
"Overall, our produce prices in the Pacific are comparable to the previous contracts except for bagged salads and seasonal items such as berries, which must be airlifted to meet the freshness and quality standards stipulated in the contract. We are actively seeking alternatives for providing bagged salads to the Pacific," Robinson said.
"It's important to note that DeCA itself has also contributed somewhat to the issues with some of the higher prices" in Guam, he noted. "In looking at the over-400-item catalog, our commissary personnel selected the most expensive option, not realizing that a less costly item was available."
Those less costly items were delivered by ship, rather than air.
As of Dec. 17, Robinson said, International Distributors Inc. is meeting its contractual requirements by providing average customer savings of 40.1 percent or more on the 35 high-volume "core" items.
"DeCA is extremely confident that the contractor will continue to outperform on these items," Robinson said.
In its bid, International Distributors, Inc., of Barrigada, Guam, proposed that savings would be 40.1 percent, compared to the local Guam economy. DeCA's new benchmarks for savings are comparisons with local foreign markets.
Before the new contracts went into effect, the DeCA benchmark for produce prices in the Pacific was comparisons with produce prices in commercial stores in California.
"We brought in savings, but we also had to pass on the freight [costs] to the customers," said Shana Guzman, president of International Distributors, Inc., of Barrigada, Guam, in an interview Dec. 16.
For a number of items, commissary managers initially were ordering some produce that had to be airlifted. But customers have shown they prefer price over quality, she said. "We're no longer bringing in airlifted items that we know will arrive well via ocean. It was sticker shock, initially. The sticker shock was most noticeable in the bagged salads," she said.
The added cost for items that are shipped by ocean is about 25 cents per pound. For items that are airlifted, it adds about $4 per pound, Guzman said.
The bags of Romaine hearts salad weigh more, she said, and they would prefer to offer the heads of Romaine, which can be shipped by ocean. But all bagged salads, mushrooms, berries and herbs must be airlifted because of the distance.
IDI tries to provide as much local produce as possible, Guzman said, but that's about 1 percent of the produce provided to the commissary. This year's growing season brought some complications due to storms.
But more local produce is coming in, she said, although it will remain fairly minimal.
The quality of produce brought in by boat "won't match up to airlifted items, but it's a challenge we face being so far away," she said. "That's what we deal with, being out here."
The quality of produce brought in by ship is good, "just not great," although it's absolutely safe to eat, she said.
"We provide the same produce to commissaries that we provide to four-star hotels and restaurants on Guam," she said, adding that IDI has been in business providing produce for 35 years.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has received about a dozen complaints about the situation from commissary customers in the Pacific, said Joe Kasper, Hunter's chief of staff.
"There are some frustrated families, and they have every right to be," he said.
Hunter unsuccessfully tried to stop the anticipated price increases under the terms of the new contracts that do not require DeCA to cover shipping costs anymore, but "DoD did not listen," Kasper said.
"The consequence was higher prices to families. It may not mean a lot to DoD, but it means a lot to families."
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.