Electronic cards used by food stamp recipients in 17 states stopped working for around 11 hours due to a computer glitch on Saturday, leaving many unable to buy groceries, the company that manages the system said.
People enrolled in the government food assistance program use debit-card-like vouchers called EBT, or Electronic Benefits Transfer. Starting at about 11 a.m. EDT, some of those cards stopped working, Xerox spokesman Kevin Lightfoot said. At around 10 p.m. EDT, Xerox said access to the food stamp system had been restored, leaving shoppers across the U.S. frustrated and angry.
A power outage that started the problem was fixed within 20 minutes, Lightfoot said, but shoppers continued to run into difficulties throughout the day.
Edlyn Bautista, assistant manager at the Food Basics supermarket in Belleville, New Jersey, said many customers abandoned their groceries in frustration.
"A lot of carts were left behind," Bautista said. "The store is empty."
"That's a problem. There are a lot of families who are not going to be able to feed children, because the system is being maintenanced," Bardara Colman, shopper at Market Basket grocery store in Biddeford, Maine, said. She planned to reach out to local officials. "You don't want children going hungry tonight because of stupidity."
In Clarksdale, Miss. — one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest states in the nation — cashier Eliza Shook said dozens of customers at Corner Grocery had to put back groceries when the cards failed Saturday because they couldn't afford to pay for the food.
"It's been terrible," Shook said in a phone interview. "It's just been some angry folks. That's what a lot of folks depend on."
The glitch was unrelated to the partial federal government shutdown that began on Oct. 1, Lightfoot said, adding that it was not unclear how many beneficiaries were affected.
The breakdown involved the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
In most states, retailers can get permission to issue emergency paper vouchers which allow people to buy food. But some states limit the value of those vouchers, Lightfoot said.
For example, beneficiaries in Ohio can buy no more than $50 of groceries on an emergency voucher, he said.
Benjamin Johnson, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said Xerox is notifying retailers to revert to the manual system, meaning customers can spend up to $50 until the system is back online. Recipients of the state's supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, should call the 800 number on the back of their card, and Xerox will guide them through the purchase process.
States experiencing problems included Alabama, California, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia, Lightfoot said.