A commissary customer in Sigonella, Italy says their store “has consistently been empty of meat, dairy, cheese, butter, infant formula, and more for almost two months,” in a post on the official Defense Commissary Agency Facebook page.

“We keep getting told that supply chain is to blame, but other overseas military installations in Italy, Germany, etc. don’t look like this. Neither do stores out in town. The commissary is an entitlement to support the military and their families, which we rely upon dearly. This is unacceptable,” writes Payton Leigh Perez.

In Guam, commissary customers “have to go to the fully-stocked out-in-town stores where milk is $13/gallon,” writes Jenny Potter.

From Millington, Tenn., to Europe and the Pacific, commissary customers are seeing empty shelves, just like many people are seeing in civilian grocery stores. Customers have posted comments on a number of installation Facebook pages.

The commissary agency hears you. They’ve been fighting this problem of shortages for more than a year, but it has been exacerbated lately by the surging number of COVID cases. All military commissaries worldwide are seeing the effects of the supply chain disruption, officials said.

”We want our customers to know we are doing everything we can, and more, to get the products they need onto their store shelves, especially to our overseas commissaries,” said Kevin Robinson, spokesman for the Defense Commissary Agency. “If they happen to see empty shelves in the store, please be patient; the store will be restocked often the very next day.”

All product categories are affected except for meat, he said.

“In my view, the real food insecurity issue with the military right now is making sure we get sufficient quantities into the stores so people can shop,” said Steve Rossetti, president of the American Logistics Association, the trade organization representing manufacturers and distributors of products that are sold in commissaries. “The Defense Commissary Agency is doing everything they can. The distributors are doing everything we can.”

He said there are about 2,300 grocery items across the board where there are limited quantities available, and the commissaries and other civilian stores are allocated a certain number of those items by manufacturers. ALA has been pressing manufacturers to increase their allocations to commissaries, citing the unique worldwide needs of commissary customers.

The problems are many. There’s a shortage of raw materials, such as those used for packaging: cardboard, aluminum and plastic. Vendors are seeing 12% to 15% employee vacancy rates, with the “severely constricted” job market, Robinson said, in addition to workers being unable to come to work because of testing positive for COVID. Manufacturers have stopped producing a large number of items so they can focus on a smaller number of key brands. The ongoing problem of driver shortages has also worsened during the pandemic.

Here’s what’s happening in different parts of the world:

Stateside commissaries: The average overall fill rate is about 55 percent, which means that if store officials ordered 50 cases of a product, they’d only receive about 27 cases.

The problems in the U.S. stores are exacerbated by the fact that overseas stores must take priority. Officials need to get products in the pipeline for the overseas stores first because of the long lead time required to ship the items. Overseas stores are the highest priority for commissary officials right now because there are fewer alternatives for those customers.

“Right now the flow of products to our stores overseas is below preferred levels, but it is flowing,” Robinson said. Officials are “diligently monitoring inventory levels overseas on a daily basis, working with suppliers to significantly increase the fill rates,” he said. “As the strain is being felt across all of our stores, our store directors, zone managers and our area officials have been engaged with installation leadership teams to keep them apprised of our efforts to keep much-needed products on our store shelves.”

Europe: There have been severe shortages of U.S.-supplied chilled products, such as dairy items, yogurt, deli meat, for several weeks. Shipping containers with these products started arriving again this week, but before that, containers weren’t consistently arriving at the Kaiserslautern Central Distribution Center. With the ongoing disruptions, the average transit time is 21 days for products to get from the U.S. to commissaries in Europe.

Between Jan. 1 and Jan. 31, an additional 76 containers with chilled products are expected to arrive in Europe. Over the next two weeks, the Kaiserslautern distribution center is expected to receive the normal average shipments. If this consistency continues, “we should be in better shape,” Robinson said. Stores are also continuing to order chill products from local sources overseas to compensate for the U.S. supply chain disruptions.

Currently, the commissaries in Europe are getting about 91% of the dry goods ordered; 80% of frozen foods, and 60% of chilled foods.

Pacific: Because of ongoing supply chain disruptions combined with New Year port closures, Pacific stores have experienced significant delays. “As a result, our patrons saw entire dairy sections empty at many stores,” Robinson said.

Currently the Okinawa Central Distribution Center has about 91% of stock availability of all products — dry, frozen and chilled. Order fill rates are for dry goods are 91%; frozen foods, 95%; and chilled foods, 88%.

The Japan central distribution centers are getting about 91% of their dry goods ordered; 94% of frozen foods; and 90 percent of chilled foods.

The Korea central distribution centers are getting about 91 % of dry goods ordered; 96% of their frozen foods; and 93% of chilled foods.

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.

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