NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Members of the Armed Forces will still be paid in the partial government shutdown, but their food bills could soar if Washington's political brinksmanship drags on.
Commissaries in the U.S. where military families can buy inexpensive groceries tax-free are shutting doors Wednesday due to the shutdown. And that could create a financial hardship for those who depend on the stores' steeply discounted prices to make ends meet — particularly young service members with families to feed or retired veterans on fixed incomes.
About 12 million people — including military personnel, retirees and their families — are eligible to shop at the 246 commissaries on military installations worldwide. The commissaries typically carry everything a national supermarket chain would — including brand-name products — but at much lower prices than their commercial competitors.
The military is required to sell goods at its commissaries at cost. While there is a 5 percent surcharge on all products to help pay for new commissaries and improve existing ones, there is no sales tax on the products sold.
But starting Wednesday, many customers will have to find another place to shop until Congress can come to a funding agreement. The military is closing all of its domestic commissaries, although overseas stores will remain open.
"They think groceries are available everywhere, and there are places where retirees don't have access to the commissary. But their budget isn't built on that savings. We've become accustomed to paying X amount for groceries and that's what our budget is built around. So yes, this will have a real negative impact if it goes on beyond a week or two," said Scott Whitmore, a Navy retiree who lives in Marysville, Wash.
"I actually went shopping on Sunday because I saw the handwriting on the wall," said Whitmore, who regularly shops at his nearby commissary.
On social media, there were widespread reports of long lines and empty store shelves at commissaries nationwide Tuesday as military families scrambled to buy groceries before their local stores closed. Whitmore and his wife are raising their 9-year-old granddaughter and said he mentioned the closings to another military parent at the bus stop on Tuesday, urging her to stock up.
"We go to the regular grocery stores in town and go, 'How do these people do this?" Whitmore said.
The Defense Commissary Agency based at Fort Lee, Va. says its shoppers save more than 30 percent, on average, compared with commercial prices. The agency says a family of four that shops at a commissary year-round has an annual savings of about $4,500. That's significant, given that many entry-level members of the military make about $20,000 a year, excluding bonuses and allowances for housing and meals, under certain conditions.
"We are acutely aware of the hardships placed on all our customers if we cannot deliver their commissary benefit," Joseph H. Jeu, the Defense Commissary Agency's director and CEO, said in a statement. "However, because of their geographic location, our service members and their families overseas have a more critical dependence on commissaries, and we are prepared to continue that support."
Among members of the military community, commissaries are seen as a major perk.
The Defense Commissary Agency noted in its 2012 annual report that it exceeded $6 billion in sales for the first time since 1992, when it had 411 stores. As of Tuesday, the agency will have 178 domestic stores and 68 overseas commissaries. The Defense Department considers commissaries a major recruitment tool that helps supplement military incomes.
Marissa Trudo, an Air Force military spouse who lives near Langley Air Force Base, Va., said she takes the grocery bill into account in budgeting for her family. Shopping at a commissary helps make a government paycheck go a bit further.
"I find it to be way cheaper than the local grocery stores," Trudo said.
Trudo lives in Hampton, Va., but she said when she was visiting family in Rhode Island earlier this summer that she noticed that cereal cost twice as much in grocery stores there as she paid at her local commissary.
"You know that you can get more for your money here," she said. "It is definitely a perk."
Even though she and her husband live in military housing off base, she said it is worth it to drive through security to shop at the commissary instead of at a civilian store.
The same is true for retirees.
Many of the top performing commissaries in terms of sales are in urban areas where there are large numbers of retirees who regularly shop there, rather than those with the largest number of military personnel or those in isolated areas with few competitors.
The top five commissaries by sales are in northern Virginia, San Diego, Hawaii and southeast Virginia, according to 2010 sales figures, the most recent readily available. The military-retiree rich region of southeast Virginia had two of the top ten performing stores, with No. 4 at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach and No. 10 at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton.
"I love the commissary. I've grown up with it. I've been married 40 years and used the commissary for 40 years. It is worthwhile, it really is. I hope they can resolve the issue with the closure of the government," said Susan Searles, a military retiree who was shopping at a commissary at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia on Monday.
While the partial shutdown began Tuesday, domestic commissaries stayed open an extra business day in an effort to clear out produce. Kevin Robinson, a Defense Commissary Agency spokesman, said any perishable goods that are left unsold may eventually have to be thrown away if the shutdown continues.
"Our contingency plan is to have two store managers on call to handle storage alarms, refrigeration alarms, and periodically discard product" for sanitary issues, Robinson said in an email to The Associated Press.
Defense Commissary Agency www.commissaries.com
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis