Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Everything you never knew you ever wanted to know about the Iwakuni commissary...

At a luncheon today, the director of the MCAS Iwakuni commissary, Buddy Kolath, who arrived in Iwakuni in January, spoke about the current conditions and future plans for the commissary on base. For those of you non-military types reading this, the commissary is the grocery store. The very lifeblood of our existence. Well, at least our existence as Americans. Sure, we could go off base to shop for food... there are plenty of Japanese grocery store choices, otherwise known as "living on the economy," but many items on traditional American grocery lists are not available, or are much more expensive.

So, the commissary, especially since we are living overseas, is an incredibly important part of life here. It's where we get 93 percent of our groceries, run in to the people we have been trying to avoid all summer, and, most recently, get kicked out for wearing a spaghetti strap tank top (yes, this happened, no, it did not happen to me. I prefer my embarrassment to come from getting pulled over by Japanese cops).

 I have blogged about the commissary before. You can find the posts here:

Ahhh... the commissary from November 2013
Town Hall Takeaway from February 2014

Today's discussion moved around to various topics, returning to some, and, like all good Iwakuni discussions do, got off topic as well. The easiest way for me to touch on the important points made by Buddy is to simply provide a list... so here it is, in no particular order:

  • The new commissary building is now scheduled to be completed in September 2015, with a Grand Opening tentatively scheduled for the December 2015 timeframe. This was pushed back from Spring 2015 due to a lack of funds. (Yes, I was surprised by this reason, also... I was under the impression this had been planned and budgeted for for years... I think more budget-savvy military wives need to be involved next time. Just sayin'...)
  • If you have a problem with the commissary, go to Buddy. He said he has an open-door policy, his office is in the back warehouse area (think soda, paper plates and pet food) and he will fix your problem to the best of his ability as quickly as possible. When you submit an ICE comment, it actually takes longer to fix the problem, he said. His days off are Friday and Saturday.
  • Dairy shortages (and, as anyone who is friends with me on Facebook, cottage cheese famines) should become a thing of the past. Thanks to some governmental red tape, there was a year that DECA, the company that manages the commissaries across the world, could only use American shipping vessels (boats). This will soon change, and the more available vessels means more available dairy. Yay!
  • But there are still lag times. From when the commissary puts in an order for items, it takes 6 to 8 weeks for that order to arrive in the Iwakuni commissary. Within that time frame, it takes our food 18-20 days to travel from the supplier in America to the commissary. This includes produce, which is why we often have moldy fruit and veggies. If there is any kind of delay in the hot summer, the shelf life of these foods is going to be much shorter. Plus, our food has to be inspected and fumigated (yes, fumigated for American bugs they don't want in their country, like... black widow spiders... if you just got to Iwakuni and haven't heard about the fight against black widow spiders yet, don't worry, you will) by the Japanese government and this takes time. I assume the fumigation chemicals are safe for human consumption...or it could be some kind of long-term payback... but the family and I seem to be OK so far.
  • Despite the delays and fumigation, produce from the States is imported because it is much cheaper than local produce. And, long story short, there is a lot of governmental red tape when trying to reduce imports and increase local purchases. But Buddy said he is going to try and bring in fresher local foods... which turn out to be not so local. All warehouses are in Tokyo, so regardless of where the crops are harvested, everything goes to Tokyo and then comes back to outlying areas. For those of you reading this who aren't aware, Tokyo is about 16 hours by car from Iwakuni. This distance costs money and time.
  • MCAS Iwakuni commissary sales are up 20 percent from this time last year. How odd... the base also grew by 20 percent, thanks to a new squadron being relocated here from Okinawa. ;)
  • Iwakuni residents use 14 percent less coupons than any other base in the Pacific. Free coupons are available at the commissary as you walk in, and outside the Information, Referral and Relocation office on the first floor of building 411 (library building). I save, on average, $200 a quarter (as in calendar quarter) using coupons. And trust me, I don't waste time clipping them. I spend an hour each quarter sorting them and then have them with me when I shop. Coupons overseas are good for 6 months after the expiration date. So give your great aunt Betty something fun to do: Ask her to send you expired coupons and let's get that average coupon use up! I hate being in last place. I'm competitive like that.
  • Want vegan ice cream or dark chocolate cocoa mix but can't find it at the commissary? Special order it. There are forms at the commissary, and they will try to find a vendor to provide your requested item. But be patient: It could take anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months to get the item in to the store. And that's if there is a vendor available to provide it to the commissary. Again, more governmental contractual red tape is at play.
  • Buddy is aware of the lousy quality of the shopping carts, and the lack of two-seater carts for those families who need to corral their small children to shop. He is looking in to ordering more big carts and working on fixing the safety belts and wheels on the rest. The majority of these carts are only a year old and the company that provided them is contractually obligated to maintain and fix them... however, the company does not have any suppliers near us, so they can't be forced to fix and maintain the carts. Um... who signed off on that contract? Clearly it wasn't a petite mother of three having to live and shop here... and replace any of the broken merchandise her wayward cart decided to plow in to.
  • The commissary offers special services, such as deli party trays and fruit/veggie trays in various sizes. Just give them 24 hours notice. When we get the new commissary next year, there will be additional special services offered.
  • Did you know there was a meat department button you could push to have a butcher come out and do special cuts of meat for you? Yeah, me neither, but there is. I am going to hunt for the button next time I am at the commissary. Supposedly they will provide the cuts of meat you want and ground your sirloin for you, all for free (with the price of the meat, of course). Oh, and ox tails will be back soon. But don't expect any fresh fish. This commissary doesn't have the facilities required for it.
  • All meat at the commissary must be USDA approved, per military order. So, yes, your chicken will always be sold frozen. Buddy is also looking in to providing more organic chicken and turkey choices.
  • Want to place a big order of turkeys or hams for the holiday squadron functions? Place your special order at least a week in advance. Want to roast a whole pig? Order it at least 8 weeks in advance... and then tell me how you plan to cook it because if there is a pit barbecue somewhere around here, I am crashing your party.
  • It's humid here and I already told you about the long shipping delays. Put your bread in the refrigerator to reduce molding.
  • Expiration/sell by dates on food is merely a suggestion provided by savvy marketers. You'll probably toss out perfectly good food and buy more. A marketers dream! Use common sense and, when all else fails, Google it.
  • The lumps found in DariGold milk doesn't necessarily mean it's gone bad. It actually means that you need to shake the milk up because the company didn't do it well enough for you. Consider it an excuse to miss Zumba class tomorrow.
  • There will be a Fall Farmers Market and Sidewalk sale at the commissary Sept. 27-29, 2014.
  • In celebration of Labor Day this weekend, there will be a 50 percent off sale on Bubba Burgers, Washington Beef and Oscar Meyer Sausage. Go get it, grill meisters!
So, if you have any questions about any of this, ask Buddy. I have given you everything I learned today. 


Japan traveler said...

You can rent a large grill for the whole pigs. My husband and a friend's husband has done it many times.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the updates. When I asked Buddy for organic beef, he told me just not to eat the fat. That the toxins are in the fat. It seems it would be helpful to have a nutritionist on board to assist in selecting healthier, non processed food options.

Kimberly H said...

I imagine the coupon usage here is 14% lower than other bases in the Pacific because our commissary has at least 14% less food than any other commissary!

Also, they sell fresh, local chicken at the commissaries in Okinawa so the USDA requirement must not be the whole truth.

Thanks for sharing! I'd be interested in attending another commissary "Town Hall" in the future. How did you find out about this?

Jessica Guthrie said...

Thank you for the grill info! Where do you rent the grills from? Outdoor Rec? And Julie, I think there is a nutritionist as the schools and contracted with the gym. It might be worth something to suggest through an ICE comment. Kimberly, yes, I'm not sure what the differences with OKkinawa might be. Obvously, being "remote" from Tokyo themselves, the distribution process may be different, Buddy also said they tried using a local poultry supplier, but that it did not work out because their food handling standards weren't as high as required by the USDA. Who knows, though? And this meeting wasn't a town hall, it was a luncheon for CO, XO and senior enlisted spouses. The idea was to gather the info as a smaller group and then share it with our squadrons. I just tend to share on my blog, as well. :) Thanks for your feedback, everyone!