By Dr. Peter D. Skirbunt, Defense Commissary Agency historian

9/28/2006 - FORT LEE VA (AFPN) – The military commissary benefit is almost 140 years old.

In 1866, Congress authorized the Army to sell food items, at cost, to officers and enlisted men, starting July 1, 1867. These sales were at every Army post with a subsistence warehouse. Sales areas were simply a table or counter in the warehouse, and the official stock list was only 82 items.

In the early years of the 20th century, commissaries have become similar to civilian grocery stores and supermarkets in terms of both layout and the number of items offered for sale. In the last 15 years, store facilities have been further upgraded, more people have become eligible to enjoy the benefit, and customer savings have increased. In 191, commissaries provided average customer savings of 20 percent when compared with local grocery chains. Today, the average savings are more than 30 percent.

The Defense Commissary Agency will mark its 15th anniversary Oct. 1. Congress and the Department of Defense created DeCA in 1991 by consolidating the military services' retail grocery operations into one organization.

“With sales of over $5 billion, all 'at cost' to our customers, this agency continues to save taxpayer dollars while delivering a vital military benefit important to military family quality of life and the recruiting and retention of military personnel,” said Patrick Nixon, DeCA Director. “The word 'DeCA' has become synonymous for leading change and achieving results. We're proud to have accomplished so much in our short lifetime as an agency.”

Through funding of customer surcharge dollars, the agency has strived to provide military families with a shopping experience comparable to civilian sector stores. Recently, DeCA has opened 86 new stores, remodeled or renovated 64 existing ones, and upgraded and modernized more than a hundred more. In 2007, DeCA will open its “store of the future” — a prototype upon which facets of other stores will be modeled - at Naval Base San Diego.

The Congress-mandated surcharge has remained at 5 percent since 1983. The number of items stocked by commissaries has increased, from about 13,000 in the largest stores in 1991 to 17,000 in 2006. National Guard and Reserve personnel, always key components of the military, were granted full-time commissary benefits in 2004.

In most commissaries, ID checks have been moved from the front door to the registers for the convenience of customers. Other conveniences such as self-checkouts, sushi bars, hot foods, deli-bakeries, credit and debit card acceptance, gift certificates and much more have been added to modern commissaries.

“We're actively involved in our communities as well,” Mr. Nixon said. “The Scholarships for Military Children, funded by manufacturers and brokers that sell groceries in commissaries, has awarded more than $4 million and nearly 3,000 scholarships to military children.”

When natural disasters strike military installations, as happened last year when hurricanes Rita and Katrina hit Gulf Coast installations, commissaries provide crucial aid to military and civilian families in need of food and supplies. When commissaries were severely damaged, temporary stores brought some sense of normality to affected customers.

Commissaries provide a substantial savings, particularly in high-cost-of-living areas of the country, and overseas they provide a morale boosting “taste of home” by providing familiar American food products.

“Commissaries have become increasingly important in the military community,” Mr. Nixon said. “There is a growing recognition that the commissary benefit serves our people in uniform wherever they are stationed. When forces deploy, the families left behind depend upon their local community services, including the commissaries, to see them through tough, lonely times. The Defense Commissary Agency is ready to continue providing this highly valued military benefit for years to come.”