• Sat 79°F / 47°F

Walmart Shelves Emptied in Food Stamp Shopping Spree

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images(MANSFIELD, La.) -- Louisiana officials are trying to decide what to do about a massive shopping spree by families on food stamps when a power outage lifted the caps on their spending cards.

Police were called to Walmarts in Mansfield, La., and Springhill, La., on Saturday as shoppers cleaned out store shelves.

Springhill Police Chief Will Lynd said some customers were pushing more food than any household could store in a refrigerator and freezer.

"I saw people drag out 8 to 10 grocery carts," he said.

Lynd said customers were "not unruly." There were no fights or arrests made, but the scene was still chaotic, he said.

"It was definitely worse than Black Friday. It was worse than anything we had ever seen in this town," Lynd said. "There was no food left on any of the shelves, and no meat left. The grocery part of Walmart was totally decimated."

He said one customer made about $700 in food purchases.

Lynd said that around 9 p.m. CT on Saturday, a Walmart employee made an announcement on the intercom saying that the computer system had been restored and card limits had returned. At that time, customers left shopping carts full of food in store aisles.

"At that point in time, they knew the jig was up and they couldn't purchase what they wanted to," Lynd said.

The Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program and has limited staff due to the government shutdown, did not return a request for comment.

The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services' spokesman Trey Williams said the agency is meeting Monday to discuss how to handle the issue.

The shopping frenzy was triggered when the Electronic Benefits Transfer system went down because a back-up generator failed at 11 a.m. EST Saturday during a regularly-scheduled test, according to Xerox, based in Norwalk, Conn., a vendor for the EBT system.

The outage allowed recipients to spend unlimited amounts of money because the spending limit was removed from their EBT cards.

The EBT system was affected in 17 states, where individuals and households access programs like Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

"The loss of power triggered a preventative shutdown of the EBT system to protect its overall integrity," according to a statement from Xerox spokesman, Kevin Lightfoot. "While the system was restored within 22 minutes, the network experienced connectivity issues until our technical staff were able to re-establish full access just before 10 p.m. EST."

Lynd said the Springhill Walmart store manager called police on Saturday morning to ask for advice over crowd control. When he arrived, Lynd told the Walmart staff that they had the right to refuse service if they chose to, but Walmart's corporate office advised the store to allow customers to purchase what they wanted with the cards.

A spokeswoman for Walmart, Kayla Whaling, said the frenzied shopping in Louisiana "was isolated and is not representative of the what our stores experienced across the country."

Xerox said that it continues to "investigate the cause of the issue so we can take steps to ensure a similar interruption does not re-occur."

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