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Will Higher OCONUS Produce Prices Hurt You?

Starting in early September service members and their families stationed in Japan, Korea and Guam could see produce prices on base double.

But does it matter? Do people even like the produce at those commissaries to start with?

Here's the deal: right now the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) is coughing up $35 million a year to airlift fruit and vegetables from the U.S. to commissaries in Japan, Korea and Guam, a source told me. About 75 percent of the produce you see in those stores is brought in this way, and about 25 percent is purchased in country, according to an industry representative. But the contract with the supplier who comes up with the product is about to end.

Instead of keeping it the way it is, DeCA is using the expiration to make a change. Rather than foot the bill for shipping, they are going to require the contractor to either come up with the food locally or pay to ship it there themselves.

The result? Higher prices for produce in commissaries in those places.

Why? Because many fruits and vegetables that Americans are used to seeing in their stores and that the commissaries currently stock cost more purchased locally. Celery, for example, was recently $1.13 per lbs at the Okinawa, Japan commissary. Purchased outside the gate it was $10.56 per lbs.

That's a big price jump, especially if you're a celery fan stationed in that region.

Commissary officials told me that they started looking at this change long before the current budget proposal, which has yet to be approved, came out early this month. That proposal would make changes like this mandatory. Instead, officials said the change is to get the commissaries in Asia in line with the rest of those overseas that already sell locally grown produce.

The difference, industry insiders say, is that the produce sold in Europe, for example, doesn't cost as much as that sold in Asia, largely due to its availability.

But here's the kicker: while working on this story I interviewed about 10 people who use the Japan, Korea and Guam commissaries. And only one of them said this change would be a major problem. The rest said that some of their shopping habits would change (example: they wouldn't eat as much celery). But really, they said, they prefer to buy produce on the economy as it is.

Why? Because the quality is higher.

"As it is, I buy 90-95 percent of my produce off base anyway. It's cheaper to do so, plus the quality is so much better. Produce from the commissary spoils quickly, and isn't worth buying there unless I'm in a pinch and I know I'll use it the same day," said Wendy, a Navy spouse stationed in Japan.

But several of those who said they prefer to shop for veggies on the economy noted that this change would really hurt some folks living over there.

"If the commissaries were to only stock local produce, many of the staple fruits and veggies of an American household would disappear. Say goodbye to spinach. And, the cost would be a lot more than 20 to 50 percent. At least in this area," said KC, a Marine Corps spouse at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan. "The amount of food that I buy has already been impacted by our move here. The selection at the commissary is already thin when it comes to produce."

The biggest impact would likely be on junior families, one spouse noted.

"The price increase would definitely impact those living on a fixed or limited budget and there are quite a few families who can't shop out in town," said Amy, a Marine Corps spouse at Okinawa, Japan.

Aimee, a spouse in Korea, agreed.

"Some fruit and American produce items are sky high on the economy," she said. "I can tell you factually, that if our commissary did not sell produce then our Enlisted and Officers over here in Korea, would falter."

I want to hear from you. If produce prices at the commissary go up in Korea, Japan and Guam will you be impacted? Will it change your shopping habits?

 

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