On Ketchup-Gate

I know Thursdays is usually reserved for food and drink posts but I’m making a slight exception. I mean this is about ketchup…but it’s mainly military.

Some of you may have heard about Ketchup-Gate, it’s on about every military spouse related website out there. It was named by NextGen Mil Spouses after this article from the Washington Post about how commissaries are a huge part of defense spending and basically how some are trying to eliminate them. It focuses on the apparently 12 varieties of Ketchup at the grocery store. But there have been others, like this one from HuffPo which cost some uproar in March.

KetchupThere have been lots of responses to these, but the most recent and a great argument is from Amy Bushatz on SpouseBuzz with her open letter to those that are so vocal about the “lavish” benefits military families are entitled to, from pay to on-post grocery stores. After reading the whole article from Washington Post – I can say that I think looking for a better financial model for the commissaries is a good idea but fully eliminating them would not go over so well. Let me share a story:

A good friend of mine from college visited last summer and wanted to see the base. He’d never been on any installation before so I decided to do a quick driving tour (James was deployed so couldn’t show off his work area, cool vehicles, etc.). His first reaction: “There are traffic lights!” I laughed, and said “well of course.” We talked for a bit and he really just thought of the base as a place for all the military stuff, where the Soldiers worked, etc. But in reality it’s a town, and in the case of JBLM a city. Last year when I worked on post I learned that during the day, with all the service members, their families, and civilian employees: the population makes JBLM the 7th largest city in Washington. 7TH LARGEST! (The garrison commander at the time half-jokingly called himself the mayor.) Sure all these people don’t live on post but a lot do. Hence, the need for stores.

Is the commissary the nicest grocery store? No. Does it always have the best products? No. Is it always the cheapest? No. But is it convenient for the people that live and work on post? Of course. Does it provide groceries? Yes. Do retirees drive hours to shop tax-free? Yep and they always will.

But can you imagine if your neighborhood grocery store just closed? No? Well that’s what it would be like. I don’t always shop on post, for me it’s just not convenient, but if I really need milk and I’m on post I’ll go there. One exception: I buy most of our alcohol on post (liquor tax in WA is crazy high). I also know people that live on-post that drive off post to buy things, whether they want to shop at the farmers market or the low prices of WalMart. Or they just don’t carry what they are looking for on post. Or they just love Target.  But just cutting it? Not entirely an option.

Here’s another thing that upsets me: the stats in these articles about what service members make per year just aren’t correct. (Read Amy’s post on SpouseBuzz for a great breakdown.) Oh and free base housing? Nope. Families get BAH and if you live on post that money goes directly to the housing office to pay for your home (you know rent/overhead/etc). If you live off-post (like we do) it comes as a part of your paycheck. And then you pay your rent/mortgage.

In short, our military families aren’t living off the government. Does the commissary need a new financial plan that’s sustainable? Of course. The defense budget is huge, and I think we can all agree the federal budget could use a nice long look-over/re-working. But the commissary is more than a place for all the ketchup in the world, it’s the local store for thousands of families.

So, what do you think of Ketchup-Gate? Slightly overblown or on track? What other misconceptions about military life have you heard and/or shot down?

2 responses to “On Ketchup-Gate

  1. This was beautifully written. I love the reactions I get when I explain living on post and how it is just like a city. The commissary is meant to be a place for convenience. The fact that I have to have military personnel check my ID every time I want to leave post is reason enough sometimes to just go down the street to the commissary or PX. It is much quicker than having to drive 20 minutes off post or plan around when the gates near my house may or may not be open.
    I also think people when they look at salaries to make comments about how they are “too high” are generally looking at high ranking officers who have been in the service for decades. Most service members are not making above $30k/40k. My husband is an E4, has a college degree, and he is pulling in around $25k for the year. And a majority of the men and women in the services are not going to be officers where these large salaries are. And even if they are, they spent years doing the time defending the freedoms that each American claims as a birthright. That’s what is so frustrating. People want to be free, but they want to put down the entities that make sure we have that. Why wouldn’t we want our Armed Services happy and with high morale?

    • Great points! Some of that data also looked at areas where BAH is super high (like near Washington DC) but most people aren’t in those areas. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

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