Troops and families in some areas of Europe and the Pacific have been frustrated by empty shelves in commissaries over the last few weeks, shelves that are empty for different reasons.
Commissary officials said they expect the situation to improve in Europe no later than Jan. 14, depending on the location. But for customers in the Pacific, the problems continue.
"The challenges to supplying our stores in the Pacific are ongoing and with continued West Coast port delays, we cannot determine when cargo movement patterns will return to normal," said Kevin Robinson, spokesman for the Defense Commissary Agency.
West Coast port delays are related to negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Association and labor unions representing dock workers.
"However, we are doing everything possible — increasing our product reorders, looking for additional approved local sources and examining alternative shipping methods — to find work-around solutions to these problems," Robinson said.
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service operations in Okinawa, South Korea, Japan and Guam have also been affected by the port slowdown, with a delay in shipping about 100 ocean containers, said AAFES spokesman Judd Anstey. But in anticipation of these capacity constraints, he said, exchange officials increased shipments to those locations over the past few months. They're also using air shipments to ensure that critical items remain in stock, he said.
The Navy Exchange Service Command is seeing delays of five to 12 days of shipments going to Japan, said NEXCOM spokeswoman Kristine Sturkie. In response, the exchange's staff increased their ordering of high-selling items to send on the ships to Hawaii and Guam to ensure there is more inventory in the pipeline. NEXCOM has distribution centers in Japan, Hawaii and Guam with inventory that serves as a buffer for the delays, she said.
A military wife said she visited the commissary at RAF Lakenheath, England, on Sunday to find shortages that "made my mouth drop. No lettuce, no salad, no orange juice, no chicken, no bread, hardly any yogurt and cheese, and half the fruits and vegetables were gone."
"I saw a lot of frustrated people. People upset and facing off with employees who didn't know what to tell them," she said.
Customers at some commissaries in Europe started seeing problems a few days before Christmas. At European ports, sea containers were unable to clear customs when a computer process shut down and stalled deliveries of perishable items from Dec. 18 to 24, Robinson said.
Compounding the problem, system failures between DeCA's business system and its warehouse management system affected delivery of about 40 percent of the frozen food items at DeCA's cold storage plant in Kaiserslautern, Germany, he said. Nonperishable items and produce were unaffected by the cold storage plant issues.
Robinson said shipments to commissaries in Hawaii, Guam, South Korea, mainland Japan and Okinawa have been delayed up to 10 days. This has affected the ability of commissaries in the Pacific to keep shelves stocked with products such as yogurt, luncheon meat, butter, fresh bone-in meat and fresh pork.
Frozen and dry grocery products weren't affected by the West Coast port delays because a 30-day supply is kept in DeCA's central distribution centers, he said.
A sign on an empty shelf in the commissary at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, noted that the "West Coast port slowdown has impacted our distribution pipeline affecting our product availability. We apologize for this inconvenience and are working to minimize these product shortages."
On Monday, the military wife at Lakenheath shopped off base. "I had to get bread," she said.
But she expressed concern for young troops who use the commissary, especially those who use it for their Women, Infants and Children Overseas Program, which provides vouchers for nutritious foods such as milk, cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, infant formula and infant cereal.
The Overseas WIC vouchers can be used only in overseas commissaries and shoppettes operated by the exchanges. It is similar to the Agriculture Department's WIC program offered in the U.S.
The wife noted that when she went to the NCO club on Monday for lunch, she said, they had "a great salad bar. It had lots of lettuce. Apparently they don't stock from the commissary."
She has seen no decreases in food supplies in the shoppettes, she said, but noted that those facilities stock mostly snack foods.
Some items were coming back to the commissaries, she noted. As of Tuesday at Lakenheath, the produce was fully stocked, but other shelves were still empty. There was no chicken, bacon, cheese, orange juice, bread, yogurt or milk, for example, she said.
After DeCA's explanation, the military wife said she appreciated getting more information. "Nobody could give me an answer," she said. "Everyone was speculating. I wanted to be informed. When you don't have an explanation, it's frustrating."
One sign in the Lakenheath commissary attributed the lack of produce to "the holidays." Although she had previously seen some shortages of items at commissaries during holidays, she said, it was along the lines of baking supplies — and never to the extent she saw starting in December.
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.