Rising commissary prices are hurting junior enlisted families, said an Air Force tech sergeant, who asked senior leaders if financial relief could be provided to military families because of these and other increased costs worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My grocery costs have gone up, and some junior enlisted families on one income have mentioned things are getting pretty tight,” the tech sergeant stated, in a town hall question May 28 to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley, and Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Chairman Ramon Colon-Lopez.

The tech sergeant stated commissary prices have gone up significantly.

“A cheap pound of ground beef has gone from $2.30 a pound to almost $6,” said the airman, stationed at Fort Meade, Md.

Commissary officials note grocery prices have gone up across the country, not just in commissaries, and say latest calculations through March show a continued overall global savings of 24.2 percent, compared to stores outside the gate. Some commissaries began limiting meat quantities on May 1 in anticipation of national shortages.

The tech sergeant asked if officials would consider steps such as increasing the Basic Allowance for Subsistence or a temporary increase in the cost of living allowance for higher cost areas in the continental U.S.

Colon-Lopez said the financial impact of COVID-19 “has not been overlooked at any stage of this pandemic response by the department.

“We have mechanisms to plus up the ability for families, especially those families that are out of work, to be able to sustain the feeding and care of their families,” Colon-Lopez said. But as far as BAS, pay raises and other monetary benefits, these are negotiated during every budget cycle, he said. “I’m sure the impacts of COVID and the pandemic on the increasing [cost of] goods will be reflected in future National Defense Authorization Act reviews.”

The CONUS Cost of Living Allowance in place before COVID-19 affects approximately 20,000 service members in 16 military housing areas and 31 other counties in the continental U.S. It’s designed to help offset higher prices in the highest cost locations in CONUS.

Commissary officials don’t release information about pricing, and how much prices have increased during the pandemic, said Kevin Robinson, spokesman for the Defense Commissary Agency.

Commissaries are stocked with products made by many of the same manufacturers that stock local civilian grocery stores. “The pandemic has currently caused supply issues of fresh beef, pork and poultry products, and demand has driven the price up for all retailers. Commissaries are not insulated from these pricing fluctuations,” Robinson said.

“Throughout this pandemic the commissary team is working aggressively with its suppliers on a daily basis on pricing of products.”

According to the April Consumer Price Index, released May 12 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, grocery prices in the U.S. rose 2.6 percent in April, compared to March, the highest increase since 1974. The CPI reported that the increase was broad-based, affecting all major grocery store food groups. But prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs increased the most, rising 4.3 percent. Prices for cereals and bakery products increased by 2.9 percent – the largest increase ever, according to the CPI.

While prices have increased temporarily across the board, commissaries have still maintained their required level of savings in comparison to local grocery stores outside the gate, Robinson said.

Overall global savings at the end of March was 24.2 percent, compared to prices of stores outside the installation. That includes the overseas stores. For commissaries in the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, the savings calculation was 20.7 percent, compared to stores outside the gate.

Savings percentages for commissaries are calculated quarterly; savings calculations for April are not available. Commissaries are mandated by Congress to maintain an overall global savings of 23.7 percent.

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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