By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - A brief power outage caused food stamp recipients in 17 states to lose access for much of Saturday to the electronic system used by stores to verify their benefits, leaving many unable to buy groceries, the company that manages the system said.
The power outage that started the problem was fixed within 20 minutes, Xerox Corp spokesman Kevin Lightfoot said, but shoppers kept running into difficulties through the day.
People enrolled in the government food assistance program use plastic vouchers similar to debit cards. Starting at about 11 a.m. EDT, some of those cards stopped working, Lightfoot said.
Shortly before 10 p.m. EDT, the company said access was restored, and promised to work to improve its system so that similar events do not occur.
"We realize that access to these benefits is important to families in the states we serve," the company said in a statement provided by Lightfoot. "We continue to investigate the cause of the issue so we can take steps to ensure a similar interruption does not re-occur."
The glitch was unrelated to the partial federal government shutdown that began on October 1, Lightfoot said, adding it was unclear how many beneficiaries were affected.
The breakdown involved the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants and Children program.
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."
At the Pathmark grocery in Newark, New Jersey, workers had to reshelve perishable items after customers walked away, according to store officials.
"Initially, the customers were leaving carriages in the aisle because we couldn't give them a timetable," said a store manager who asked not to be identified. "It's been an all-day thing."
In most states, retailers can get permission to issue emergency paper vouchers that 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.
States experiencing problems were Alabama, California, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia, Lightfoot said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein and David Jones; Editing by David Bailey, Xavier Briand and Peter Cooney)