BEAM: The Disturbing Food Stamp Heist

Should Louisiana food stamp recipients who got greedy while shopping during a computer glitch lose their benefits for up to a year or more?

Ask almost anyone at random, and the odds are he or she will tell you they deserve any penalty they get. However, there is more to the story.

Xerox Corp. experienced a computer failure in Louisiana and in 16 other states for several hours Oct. 12. During the outage, grocery store computers weren’t able to verify the balances that food stamp recipients had on their EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards.

Some food stamp shoppers in Springhill and Mansfield got wind of the problem and emptied the shelves at Walmart stores. However, when they heard over the loud speaker that the computer system was up and running again, those who hadn’t checked out left their carts full of food in the aisles.

Will Lynd, Springhill chief of police, said, “I saw people drag out 8 to 10 grocery carts.” However, he said contrary to rumors, nobody was unruly or arrested and his police were mainly there to help prevent shoplifting and theft.

“Just about everything is gone (from the shelves). I’ve never seen it (the store) in that condition,” a Mansfield customer told KSLA-TV in Shreveport.

The television station reported that one woman was detained because she rang up a bill of $700 and only had 49 cents on her EBT card. She was held by police until a Walmart official said they wouldn’t press charges if she left the food.

Kayla Whaling, a Walmart spokesperson, told The Advocate, “We did continue to accept EBT cards so our customers could continue to buy food and other necessities for their families. The two incidents that did occur in Louisiana are isolated.”

OK, so what happened elsewhere during the computer glitch?

WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge said a major chain store in Donaldsonville closed down an hour and a half early, but witnesses said they saw people walking out with multiple carts of groceries before the shutdown.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi said customers in Philadelphia, Miss., staged a disturbance, took unpaid-for groceries and walked out of a Walmart after they were unable to use their food stamp cards. Store managers said for the safety of their customers they decided to close the store.

In Clarksdale, Miss., a grocery cashier said dozens of customers had to put items back when the cards failed.

“It’s been terrible,” the cashier said. “It’s just been some angry folks. That’s what a lot of folks depend on.”

Spokesmen for grocery stores in Alabama said people with full shopping carts left frustrated and empty-handed when their EBT cards wouldn’t work.

Shoppers in Biddeford, Maine, left carts of groceries behind at a Market Basket store because they couldn’t get their benefits.

As you can see, the reactions varied widely. Some defended the shoppers who went wild. One man said it was a natural human reaction that led people to fill up their carts during the outage.

An article in the conservative National Review Online said, “If this is true, it should serve as an indictment of the society that Washington, D.C., has created, and of the vastness of a government that has disconnected so many people from the real world.” The magazine said those who elected to steal were taking from those who pay the taxes to fund the food stamp program.

Some Louisiana shoppers agreed. “That’s plain theft; that’s stealing that’s all I got to say about it,” one of them said.

The state Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) said it takes all allegations of potential fraud seriously and was investigating the reports.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who never hesitates to try and capitalize on events like this one, urged state officials to pursue charges and strip benefits from offenders. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration said it will follow through and penalize those who deliberately spent more than their monthly benefits.

Meanwhile, Walmart and Xerox were blaming each other for what some are calling “The Food Heist.” A Xerox spokesman said the company has a “documented process for retailers like Walmart to follow in response to EBT outages.”

Trey Williams, a spokesman for DCFS, confirmed that emergency procedures are in place with Xerox that allow retailers to call a phone number and receive authorization for purchases anytime the EBT system is down.

“Some retailers chose not to follow the process,” he said. “Those businesses are only being reimbursed for the (maximum) amounts on individual cards.”

State officials have said repeatedly that taxpayers didn’t owe any money because of safety features built into the food stamp program. So, it appears Xerox, Walmart, or both, could be the real losers. And that would give them a legal cause of action.

Looking at this issue from all sides, it appears it may be difficult for the state to penalize those shoppers who got greedy when word spread that their EBT cards had no limits. If that turns out to be the case, the fellow who said this was a “natural human reaction” may be right. If he is, the moral climate in this country is much worse than we could have ever imagined.

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