The burden of high fruit and vegetable prices on Pacific commissary customers could get lighter.
Congressional appropriators would require the Defense Commissary Agency to set aside $48 million in 2017 for the shipment of produce to Pacific commissaries. It's an effort to reverse the price hikes of fresh fruits and vegetables in the Pacific and especially Guam, where a package of lettuce has been known to cost shoppers more than $10.
It’s part of the House Appropriations’ defense subcommittee’s bill, which provides an overall $517.1 billion in discretionary funding for DoD. The Defense Commissary Agency would be required to spend at least $48 million to support the transportation of fruits and vegetables to those commissaries, if the measure makes its way into law. The bill is from the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee and is headed to the full committee as part of the overall 2017 defense funding proposal.
Prices on many fresh produce items in the Pacific spiked last November after the Defense Commissary Agency implemented new contracts in an effort to save the very same $48 million on shipping a year the government was paying to ship produce to those commissaries. Instead of the government paying to ship the produce, 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 the commissary customer.
While there were some trouble spots in Japan and South Korea, the problems with high prices appears to be more pronounced in Guam, sources said.
Some Customers in Guam reported that prices of some produce items had doubled or tripled. One military wife posted a picture of a 22-ounce package of Romaine lettuce priced at $10.69.
Some items have to be airlifted, such as bagged salads and seasonal items such as berries. Airlifting is more expensive. But whether the produce was airlifted or moved by ship, until last November, customers didn't have to pay for that cost.
The provision in the subcommittee's bill would require DoD to infuse the $48 million back into the system to support the transportation of fruits and vegetables.
The appropriators added another provision limiting the use of those funds to fruits and vegetables either grown locally in the country where the commissary is located or bought by commissary agency officials at a location in the continental U.S.
The subcommittee "is clearly trying to shift the failed Asian produce sourcing policy back to something that works," said one congressional staff member. He noted that the Defense Commissary Agency instituted the new policy without congressional approval and contrary to congressional concerns.
The new contract has not only increased the cost of produce but resulted in poor availability of items and lower quality, he said. "Customers are complaining while DeCA is blaming this on transition issues or focusing exclusively on the Guam issue, ignoring Japan and Korea.
"Service members are paying more for lower-quality goods," he said.
Last month, in a report accompanying its version of the defense policy bill, the House Armed Services Committee included a requirement for the DoD Inspector General to evaluate the effectiveness of the new purchase process for fresh fruits and vegetables compared to the previous process in which the transportation costs were funded by DoD. It will also do an assessment of the similar local purchase process currently ongoing in Europe.
Among other things, the IG will compare the amount of produce lost due to spoilage or importation delays compared to the previous contract; and will compare the benefits and impacts of the new contract on commissary customers in the Pacific and on the Cost of Living Allowance. Commissary prices are one of the factors used in determining the overseas COLA.
Auditors will also document the percentage increase or decrease of local market prices of fresh fruits and vegetables compared to Pacific commissary prices.
Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.