In this file photo from Jan. 8, 2013, military family member Amber Korpalski selects vegetables from the produce section of the commissary at Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan.

In this file photo from Jan. 8, 2013, military family member Amber Korpalski selects vegetables from the produce section of the commissary at Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan. (Elizabeth Casez/U.S. Marine Corps)

WASHINGTON — The future of fresh produce for Pacific military bases hangs in the balance this month as Congress holds closed-door negotiations on the 2016 defense budget.

Starting this fall, the Defense Commissary Agency could slash shipping costs by hiring a new contractor to stock store shelves in Japan, Okinawa, South Korea and Guam with local fruits and vegetables.

The move could save taxpayers $48 million per year and expand a system already used in Europe. But some lawmakers say it threatens one of military families’ most cherished benefits and are pushing to stop DECA in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which could be finalized as early as this week.

“This is all about quality and cost for military families, and they should have access to the fresh fruits and vegetables they want,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said in a statement to Stars and Stripes.

He said the agency’s plan will guarantee that troops are stuck with higher-priced fruits and vegetables that might be of questionable quality at the 29 Far East commissaries that would be affected — a claim DECA disputes.

Hunter is among a small group of House and Senate lawmakers who are debating the issue during the NDAA conference committee and he wants the massive defense policy bill to include a measure requiring DECA to do a detailed new analysis of the plan and every product before making any changes.

In the Senate, James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, and Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, have also supported legislation to hold off on the contract change but that chamber has yet to come up with strong language prohibiting it.

The military is searching for ways to trim ballooning personnel costs, including commissary, housing and health care benefits. The Defense Department has proposed cutting the annual commissary subsidy from $1.4 billion to $400 million and Congress has considered a study on privatizing the grocery stores.

DECA spends $48 million each year to transport fresh fruits and vegetables to the Pacific — produce that is worth just $25 million.

The agency told Stars and Stripes the plan to stock locally sourced food would be nothing new. Europe has been using contractors that locally source the food since 2007 and shoppers there receive minimum savings of 25-27 percent compared to local markets.

But that savings might not be enough to overcome the high costs in the Pacific market, according to an analysis last year by the Ernst and Young accounting firm that was commissioned by the former DECA contractor for the region.

The firm found the plan would peg commissary prices to locally sourced Pacific produce that is on average 66 percent more expensive and would result in less variety for shoppers.

The analysis included side-by-side photos showing United States-sourced commissary products next to much more expensive and smaller Pacific fruits and vegetables. For example, a larger commissary cantaloupe cost 53 cents per pound compared to a smaller local one for $3.28 per pound.

Overall, it concluded the change would have “profound deleterious effects” for commissary shoppers.

The former contractor is disputing DECA’s decision in May to switch to contractors who can supply the local produce. The Government Accountability Office is expected to make a decision in the case this fall and the new system could go into operation in October.

DECA maintained that military patrons would see little difference.

“While we estimate that some prices may increase or decrease, our comparison of overall patron savings for a sample of items to be provided under the new contract [found them] to be comparable to current savings,” the agency wrote in an email response.

The food would also be required to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for top grade produce, DECA said. To ensure the local suppliers could meet the requirements, the agency said it spent years on research and consultations with the Army Veterinary Services that oversee food safety, international supermarket chains and U.S. embassies.

“These new Pacific produce contracts are win-wins for military families and the U.S. government,” DECA said. “Commissaries will be providing fresh, quality produce at pricing comparable to current prices, while saving $48 million in transportation costs annually.” Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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