More kosher, halal foods needed in commissaries, lawmakers say

by Vern Evans

Military grocery stores need to provide more options to meet the needs of service members and families with religious dietary requirements, a pair of congressional lawmakers told the Defense Commissary Agency director in a letter Wednesday.

While “tens of thousands of [commissary] beneficiaries” practice a religion with unique dietary rules, the stores offer limited certified kosher and halal options and fail to promote them well, Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., wrote to commissary director John Hall.

They warned that failing to sell a wider range of kosher foods, which adhere to strict Jewish dietary laws, and halal options, which are permissible under Islamic law, undermines the military’s diversity and discourages members of those religions from serving in the U.S. armed forces.

“It is critical the Department of Defense ensures that active duty personnel of all religions, including Islam and Judaism, are able to access foods that respect their faith traditions,” wrote Pressley and Houlahan, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee’s quality-of-life panel.

“No active duty personnel should have to sacrifice their faith to serve in our military.”

The commissary agency operates 235 grocery stores on bases around the world, offering groceries at a discount to the military community. But troops, constituents and others have told Pressley’s office of the difficulties they face due to the stores’ dearth of kosher and halal options — which can force observant Jews and Muslims to shell out more money to ship groceries from specialty stores or restrict their eating altogether.

Food is certified as kosher or halal if it does not contain ingredients banned under those dietary laws, like pork or shellfish, and if it is butchered or prepared at a compliant facility and approved by a religious authority or organization such as the Orthodox Union, among other rules. How much kosher or halal food a grocery store stocks depends on how much of a demand for it exists in the local community.

“We request DeCA urgently address issues regarding access to foods that meet religious dietary restrictions,” the lawmakers wrote. They also asked that the agency work with service members and their families “to advertise items as they are made available, incorporate items in meal solutions and special observances promotions, and ensure availability during religious holidays.”

The lawmakers’ press release announcing the letter cited endorsements from two organizations, including the National Military Family Association.

“Military families need access to healthy, familiar food no matter where they live in the world,” NMFA Chief Executive Officer Besa Pinchotti said in the release. “But just as important, they need access to food that adheres to their religious dietary requirements.”

Commissaries and the food industry “constantly strive to offer a wide range of products to serve the diverse military population across the globe in areas where commercial alternatives are limited,” said Steve Rossetti, president of the American Logistics Association, a trade organization of companies whose products are sold in commissaries and exchanges. The ALA also endorsed the lawmakers’ letter to the commissary agency.

“We need to ensure that all consumer tastes and preferences, including religious dietary options, are represented in the commissary offerings,” Rossetti said.

Rossetti also told Military Times that the commissary agency “reserves a significant amount of shelf space to accommodate local patrons’ tastes and preferences,” as well as products from small businesses.

Customers can ask their local commissary to order items that may not be in stock. Information was not immediately available about whether that includes requests for food that complies with religious law, or how often people ask for those products.

The military has taken steps to accommodate the religious dietary needs of service members in settings where there may be no other options, such as on ships and other deployments. For example, the Defense Logistics Agency provides kosher and halal Meals, Ready to Eat to accommodate those who follow strict religious diets.

The Army recently said it would review the rules around the Basic Allowance for Subsistence stipend after concerns surfaced that soldiers had funds deducted from their food allowance for daily meals even when local officials could not provide religious accommodations.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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