Possible closing of commissaries worries Charleston-area military families
GOOSE CREEK - Navy wife Cleo Lott relies on the Weapons Station commissary to feed her family of four.
It's one of the most coveted perks that goes with being part of the military. And that's why news that the Pentagon is looking at closing all of its stateside commissaries has her a little rattled.
"I could go and spend $200 at the commissary and it will last us for two weeks," said Lott, 26, who lives in Weapons Station housing and is the wife of a petty officer first class.
"Even though the big chain stores say they have deals and savings, it doesn't compare to the commissary," she added. "Makes me wonder what will the government want to take away next?"
When word broke last week that the Defense Commissary Agency was asked by the Department of Defense to look at how to shutter all U.S.-based commissaries - one of many budget-cutting proposals - it sparked a far-reaching wave of worry.
On a monthly basis, thousands of area military families and retirees from several counties visit the two commissaries tied to Joint Base Charleston, one housed inside the gate at the Air Force Base and one at the Naval Weapons Station, off Red Bank Road.
The benefits are real: Shoppers interviewed last week say they can save between 25 percent and 35 percent on their grocery bills versus the civilian economy, a figure in line with Department of Defense estimates nationally.
The commissary system - grocery stores that are open only to serving members of the armed forces, their families and veterans - was set up to offer foods and other common household items at a reduced price. The stores are under scrutiny now because they represent one of several areas that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are looking to trim amid the climate of sequestration and budget cuts.
In all, there are 178 commissaries in the United States and 70 overseas drawing more than $1.4 billion in subsidized federal funding each year.
The earliest that any closures could be ordered, if it does happen, would be around 2015 should the effort be wrapped into the upcoming defense appropriation bill giving Congress the final say.
Some say the stores have lost their need as more grocery and "box" store chains have spread out across the country, and the nation's military bases are less isolated than in past decades.
The Joint Base Charleston public affairs office declined requests for a local interview, and referred to the Defense Commissary Agency headquarters on commissary matters. Phone messages left there by The Post and Courier were not returned.
Those who use the commissaries say they are a valuable asset they don't want to see disappear.
"It's going against what they promised us years ago," Gary Curtis, of Summerville, a 22-year Navy veteran, said of what the military told him when he entered the service long ago.
Curtis spent $128.18 during his visit to the Weapons Station commissary Thursday. He estimated that he saved close to $25 on what it would cost to visit a civilian supermarket closer to home.
His grocery receipt showed a family-size box of Special K cereal costs $3.99 at the commissary. The Food Lion supermarket down Red Bank Road listed the same box for $4.39.
Other cost comparisons: A half-gallon of 2 percent milk costs $1.74 at the Weapons Station store but was listed at $2.78 in the civilian world. A package of two dozen eggs was $2.89 at the commissary but comparatively would be above $3.70. Bananas, though, were around the same price, in the 50- to- 60-cent per pound range, give or take a few pennies.
Overall, those are the type of savings Kasadie Harvey, 26, another Navy wife and new mother, is after as she tries to stick to a weekly food budget of $75.
"Go to another grocery store and get the same items, it's $130," she said while lifting grocery bags into her car at the Weapons Station.
Shoppers wouldn't be the only ones hurt. Kerry Frith, an independent distributor of snacks, said the Weapons Station is part of his route, and that getting access to the territory cost him about $30,000. The commissary provides him about 40 percent of his business, he said.
If it closed? "I could probably survive on it, but it would be hard," he said.
Older retired veterans would be hurt even more if the system goes down, said Don Morillo, director of Veterans Affairs in Charleston County.
"They sell just about everything at the commissaries," he said. He predicted angry users "would raise the pure devil" to fight any serious effort at shutting down the commissaries.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.