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Until recently, Heidelberg commissary patrons had only to reach for their cash or credit cards after tossing a pound of Starbucks or Maxwell House coffee into their shopping carts and heading for the checkout.

But suddenly, there was another requirement: the U.S. Army Europe ration card had to be shown and marked off. No ration card, no coffee.

Was there a new regulation? asked some shoppers.

There was not, they were told.

“There was never a change. My employees should have been marking the ration card all along,” said Riccardo Lieffort, Heidelberg commissary director. “The guy who had the job before me misinformed the employees. Those are directives done by SOFA (Status of Forces agreements) from 60 years ago. I have to adhere to regulations.”

And, a close look at the small, blue ration card proves that it does indeed have a section, along with alcohol and tobacco, with little boxes to be checked for “coffee solubles.”

But what that includes has proven to be confusing. Confronted with an unhappy customer holding a pound of Starbucks and no ration card, one commissary cashier suggested buying German coffee, which she said, did not require a ration card.

But that, apparently, was wrong.

“In the regulation, it doesn’t stipulate,” Lieffort said.

What about instant coffee?

“That’s where it gets complex,” said Gerri Young, a spokeswoman for the Defense Commissary Agency.

Young said that only one kind of coffee is exempt: the kind that comes in single-serving bags, like tea, apparently because it doesn’t dissolve. But neither does a pound of Starbucks.

Nevertheless, she said, all the rest is supposed to be rationed — with no more than 5 pounds ground or 20 ounces of instant allowed each month.

The rationing system goes back to a 1959 SOFA agreement, according to Lanny Hall, personnel services branch chief at 1st Personnel Command.

But according to U.S. Army Europe historians, rationing dates to the U.S. occupation of Germany in 1945.

According to a memo in September 1945, the “Official Exchange Ration List” established ration scales (not specified in detail) for tobacco, candy, matches, and toilet articles. Historians noted the lack of reference then to alcoholic beverages.

“The point was to curtail black market activity and was coupled with currency control efforts, including the use of scrip. It is not clear when the first ration cards were issued, but they were in use not later than April, 1947,” according to USAREUR historians.

According to Hall, the German government has rebuffed some efforts in the past few years on the part of the U.S. to do away with the ration cards, which some see as obsolete.

“The most recent efforts by the U.S. Forces to get the German Government to discontinue rationing were made in 2002,” Hall wrote in an e-mail. “The German Government did not agree as the merchandise rationed is highly taxed … the taxes on gasoline, coffee, and tobacco stand for revenues amounting to billions of Euro.”

“There are no plans to again raise the matter with the German Government in the foreseeable future,” Hall wrote.

Along with coffee, cigarettes and alcohol are also rationed — although, apparently, not beer and wine. Tea was rationed, too, until 1994, after the German tea tax was abolished.

Is there a black market in Germany in coffee? Or even liquor and cigarettes?

U.S. military police officials in Heidelberg said in the past two years there have been no reported ration card violations. Prior records are unavailable, they said.

“While ration card violations are at a minimum, there is no reason to think the German Government has changed its position on this matter,” Hall wrote, “particularly not since de-rationing means to them providing enticement for black market activities.”

Asked how the rationing is enforced, Hall wrote: “Rationing policy enforcement is accomplished through various military and host nation customs and law enforcement.”

Young said: “Our stores are subject to inspection by German customs.” She also said she’d never seen a German customs agent in any of the stores.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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