Photos of empty commissary shelves have flooded social media due to supply chain disruptions. What appears to be an inconvenience for Americans stateside is a source of significant stress for some military families who are being denied essential WIC benefits OCONUS.
“It’s really stressful,” said WIC participant Ana Muehlhausen, whose spouse is stationed in Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan. “I don’t know if they’re gonna have what I need for my daughter. And it’s as common or as simple as getting milk or getting diapers in her size or getting medicine if she needs it. We don’t know if it will be there or when it’ll be there.”
Muehlhausen has lived in Japan for two years, had her first child nine and a half months after arriving and is currently more than 32 weeks pregnant with her second child.
WIC is a nutrition subsidy program for women, infants and children that benefits low-income families with children under the age of 5. It covers infant cereal, vitamin C-rich juice, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, dried and canned beans/peas, etc. It also covers infant formula. However, the benefits aren’t issued through EBT cards (similar to a debit card) as with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The WIC Overseas program issues families checks, also known as “drafts,” which they can exchange for the items on the list at their installation’s Commissary or NEXMART. Unlike the stateside program, WIC Overseas is “administered by DOD, not USDA, and is paid for with DOD funds.”
According to Heather Campbell, registered dietitian, food insecurity advocate and Air Force spouse, “there’s this consistent shifting of the blame.” Campbell has observed the impact a strained supply chain can have on families in rural locations as her family is stationed in interior Alaska. She also has been actively tracking the impact this issue has had OCONUS. “Nobody’s actually stepping up to look for solutions. Because these are systemic issues.”
COVID has created well-known supply chain issues throughout the world. However, military families stationed overseas experience additional complications to these shortages. They do not have the opportunity to take their WIC benefits to another location as the benefits do not transfer to host nation grocery stores. And unlike stateside programs that have transitioned to electronic benefits via Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), if an item is not available at the commissary, there are no rainchecks, substitutions or alternate grocery stores to try.
“90% of the time, especially lately, you go to the commissary trying to fulfill your WIC orders, to use your check and two out of the five things on your check you can’t get,” said Hannah Herlihy, WIC participant and resident of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan. “The whole milk aisle has been empty. If there is milk available, it might not be the specific kind that you can get on your check.”
Families are banding together to feed each other. The closest installation to Iwakuni is a Navy installation, Fleet Activities Sasebo, an approximately four-and-a-half-hour drive. If permitted, families who can afford the trip can attempt to shop off of the installation. “We all just try to keep in communication,” said Muehlhausen. “I’ve got this, or I’m going to be taking a trip [to another base].”
Military Families Magazine contacted Kevin Robinson, a Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) public affairs specialist, to comment on the supply chain shortages in the Japan region and their impacts on WIC recipients on March 3. He was unable to comment at the time of publication stating, “Our response to your questions is pending command approval to release.”