Published: December 11, 2010
A few days ago I had a teleconference with several officials from the Defense Commissary Agency, Europe. Naturally, as a serious journalist, I had burning questions to ask.
Like “Why are the marshmallows all stuck together?”
After all, I can’t be the only one who has bought a bag of miniature marshmallows from the commissary, opened them to find one giant clump of marshmallow inside and wondered why.
Cheryl Conner, DeCA Europe's deputy director, said that humidity and temperature are to blame. That and the long journey a marshmallow takes to end up in my cup of hot chocolate.
It starts on the coast of Virginia, where the marshmallows – ordered, purchased, boxed and crated for overseas commissaries – are loaded in giant shipping containers and placed on a ship.
The ship travels across the Atlantic to the coast of Belgium. From there, the containers are barged along the Rhine River, then trucked to the distribution center in Germany.
After that, the puffy sweet treats travel by truck or by air to reach the thousands of shelves of the 39 commissaries in ten countries served by DeCA Europe.
“There’s a huge temperature fluctuation from time the marshmallows leave the coast of Virginia, arrive in Antwerp, get unloaded from the ship, get put on a barge and travel up the Rhine River,” Conner explained, hence the stickiness.
Marshmallows are not alone in this journey. All the American products on our commissary shelves take this journey, so getting them here takes time.
If a customer requests an item that is already in a local distribution center, that item could arrive in a week or less. If an item has to be ordered from the distribution center in the U.S., add seven weeks to that – and that’s for items that are already on the approved DeCA inventory.
To get an item added to the commissary inventory is an involved process, said Conner.
“A company has to meet certain criteria to be able to ship overseas, for shelf life and the stability of the package,” she said.
“For every new contract, the Army food inspectors go out and inspect the plant and manufacturing companies to make sure they’re up to code. Transportation overseas is an appropriated fund, so we have to be good stewards and bring over the products that a majority of customers want,” Conner said.
Because the commissary system operates on appropriated government funds, she added, the commissary agency cannot make money or lose money. Commissary products are sold at cost plus a 5% surcharge, which is used for building, maintenance and supplies.
I’m a lifelong commissary shopper. I readily accept that the commissary system works hard to put what I need and want on the shelves. I don't expect perfection, but I have my frustrations.
Consider the Great Pumpkin incident. In October I wrote a column about baking my favorite cookies and the absence of pumpkin in my commissary. The day of publication, I received an email from DeCA Europe, wanting to tell another side of the story, which is how I came to have a teleconference with several important people from their headquarters.
“Last year’s pumpkin crop was a devastation,” explained DeCA Europe marketing chief Stephen Armbruster.
Hearing the bad news about the U.S. crop failure, Armbruster’s office early this year contacted Nestle, which cans Libby’s pumpkin, and secured the first shipments available for the fall.
“When the crop came out of the field, they packed and labeled that stuff to DeCA Europe before anyone in the States,” said Armbruster.
“They were glad to do that for the service members overseas. They can see that this is a very emotional thing and what I would call a very emotional time of year. We were able to get it in and get it on the shelves and, for the biggest part, meet people’s pumpkin needs.”
After all that, commissary officials certainly shared my concern that there was no pumpkin on the commissary shelf.
“Believe me, if I could have magicked up a pumpkin, I would have done,” Armbruster said.
You shouldn't need magic, or even the media to get answers from the commissary, however.
Armbruster, and Mike Yaksich, DeCA Europe’s director of operations, both former store directors, agreed the most efficient way to get answers is to speak directly to your commissary’s manager.
“Concerns and issues can be addressed there and taken care of quite quickly,” Armbruster said.
“The important thing is the dialog between the local store and the customers themselves. It’s the quickest way to get a response.”
Yaksich agreed and emphasized the importance of contacting management personnel.
“Employees may not have the answer,” said Yaksich. “We like our patrons to speak to management.”
Perhaps they wish I had done that instead of writing about my fruitless search. But then I wouldn't have found the answer to the marshmallow question.
To get more questions answered, customers can also fill out question and comment forms -- online at commisaries.com or paper forms at the commissary. All of this input crosses the desk of Mike Dowling, DeCA Europe director, and all receive a response, Dowling said.
For an insider's point of view, tours of some commissary facilities, like the meat-packaging plant near Ramstein, are available. For more information, contact DeCA public affairs specialist Leslie Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.