My grocery bill will skyrocket if military stores close

December 16, 2013: 10:20 AM ET
brooke goldberg
Brooke Goldberg, wife of an Air Force pilot, is among thousands of military families hoping the Pentagon doesn't close the commissaries.
WASHINGTON (CNNMoney)

It's not easy for military wife Jes Hogan to run a household of six.

She has four children, all under the age of nine, and two dogs. Hogan worries about her grocery bill -- the cost of her 18-month-old baby's diapers, or the four loaves of bread she needs for her kids' lunches. And then, there's the dog food. Discounted prices at the military grocery store are a lifesaver.

Her life could get a lot tougher -- the stores, or commissaries as they are known on military bases, could be on the chopping block as the Pentagon looks at options for slashing its budget.

"Other than health care, the commissary is one of the most important things that people need to get by," said Hogan, who lives next to Fort Riley in Kansas. Her high school sweetheart-turned-husband has served in the Army in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The savings are substantial for Hogan -- her regular food tab at the military grocery store runs between $390 and $400. If she were to shop for the same items at Ray's Apple Market, an off-base grocery store about a half-hour away, her bill runs as high as $700, even with a military discount.

Commissaries are supermarkets for families of active duty or retired military personnel. And their future is uncertain because the Pentagon is in a financial bind, thanks to the sequester, or forced budget cuts triggered in March.

Related: Military retirees: You betrayed us, Congress

Even though the latest budget deal eases defense cuts for two years, an official said he expects the Pentagon to continue "looking at everything for budget savings long term."

Senior Department of Defense spokesperson Colonel Steve Warren has assured that no military groceries are about to close. But he said the department "faces an increasingly constrained budget environment. We are reviewing all programs to identify cost-cutting and money-saving opportunities."

Besides commissaries, there are other proposed cuts that could really hit the pockets of young military families. They include capping military pay raises at 1% and trimming housing subsidies for military families who don't live on bases.

"They're basically looking at ways to make up the cuts needed for sequestration out of military families' pockets," said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association.

Still, even the mere whiff of talk that military groceries could be cut has hit a nerve, especially since people get to see the savings every time they shop.

Related: Pentagon to cut jobs, contracts by $1 billion

The savings can be substantial. On average, a family of four saves $4,500 a year at commissaries, according to the Department of Defense. Each year, $1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars prop up the 178 commissaries spread out nationwide and 67 overseas.

Military families are reluctant to shop elsewhere. On Oct. 1 -- right before closing for the federal shutdown -- commissaries sold $30.6 million worth of goods, more than double the usual daily volume, according to the Defense Commissary Agency.

Military wife Brooke Goldberg was thankful for the commissary when she had to completely restock her kitchen pantry, after her family of four recently moved to the Washington area. Her husband, an Air Force pilot, transferred from Hurlburt Field in Florida to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Related: Federal workers outraged by pension squeeze

"The thought of going to a regular grocery store and buying a bottle of ketchup, a bottle of olive oil, a bottle of vinegar, a bag of flour, a bag of sugar, is so insanely expensive," said Goldberg, deputy director for government relations at the National Military Family Association.

Meanwhile, Hogan from Fort Riley says when she and her husband were starting a family eight years ago, the savings from shopping at commissaries helped kept her family off other government assistance programs and also out of debt. And now, she knows younger families on base who get federal subsidies for milk and cheese and even food stamps.

"It's hard for younger families to make ends meet," she said "The commissaries really save you a lot of money."

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