Finally, Health & Wellness Comes to Defense Commissaries

The Lempert Report
April 28, 2021

I had the privilege to address the heads of the Military Commissaries well over a decade ago

In preparation, they allowed me to visit the commissary at Camp Pendleton outside of San Diego California. It was the first and only time I had been in a military commissary and was impressed – and stunned at the same time. The vast array of offerings was impressive; the healthier and better for you offerings were not. My task, as was explained to me by the officers at the meeting to be heal a few weeks ahead was simple. To convince them that offering better for you foods to the military families was imperative. Those who were then in service were overweight and because of the commissary system, were buying foods once a month (when they got paid) for the entire month and had to stretch their dollars in order to feed their families. As a result, the overloaded shopping carts I witnessed were, no surprised, loaded with over processed foods that would feed their families bellies and be mostly self-stable. After all, not many had a refrigerator and freezer that could hold enough foods for a month, until the next payday.  Fast forward to 2021 and one commissary located at the Robins Air Force Base in Georgia is being proactive with their dietitian and has created a “thumbs up” designation to help their soldiers and their families find healthier choices. I must add that most commissaries are larger than traditional supermarkets, making it even more difficult to find those healthier choices without proper and accurate signage. There are now 79 Defense Department commissaries and they are rolling out this program to all. Jacqueline Henderson-Pitts, Robins Commissary grocery manager, said DAT is the commissary’s way of helping the military community improve its nutrition fitness. “The DAT labels on our shelves are based on science and align with expert recommendations of the dietary guidelines for Americans and DOD health and wellness experts,” she said. “The expectation is to build a healthy eating pattern by limiting calories from unhealthy fat and added sugars, limiting sodium, and identifying items that offer the highest nutrition density with considerations to lean protein, healthy fat and whole grains.” The thumbs-up labels are located on the shelves directly underneath the products’ prices.

Kendra Hill, Robins Health Promotions dietitian, worked with the commissary’s staff to label the appropriate foods throughout the store.

“The concept is like having a dietitian alongside of you during grocery shopping,” she said. “The DAT tags assist shoppers to find products based on their nutritional attributes. The green ‘thumbs up’ shelf tags highlight foods that are high performance, nutrient dense foods while taking the guesswork out of choosing nutritious items.”The DAT-labeled foods are filled with lean/plant-based protein, healthy fats, whole grains and/or essential vitamins and minerals, Hill said. More than 3,000 food items have been labeled with the thumbs-up tag in the Robins Commissary. “The new program is much more robust, covering most of the food items sold in the stores according to DeCA Health & Wellness Program Manager Deborah Harris, who uses a unique software conceived by DeCAs health and wellness team exclusively for commissary customers.”

Hill said the DeCA software has the ability to analyze and identify products in most of the commissary food categories based on 86 of the FDA-defined health attributes, not just the six in the previous program. It’s a great step forward – and about time that the information that has become commonplace in our supermarkets has now been extended to DeCA to empower those who have the most physically and emotionally stressful jobs the opportunity to consume the healthiest food they can.