Grocery carts left abandoned at Wal-Mart on Saturday night when customers realized free food was not available because of a glitch with the federal government’s electronic food stamp cards. The rumor drew hundreds to the store, eventually forcing it to close briefly because of a near-riot situation, the authorities said. Police helped clear the store.
Grocery carts left abandoned at Wal-Mart on Saturday night when customers realized free food was not available because of a glitch with the federal government’s electronic food stamp cards. The rumor drew hundreds to the store, eventually forcing it to close briefly because of a near-riot situation, the authorities said. Police helped clear the store.
A rumor about free food due to a glitch with the federal government's electronic food stamp cards drew hundreds to the Philadelphia Wal-Mart on Saturday night, eventually forcing the store to close briefly because of a near-riot situation, the authorities said.

No arrests were made and no food was actually taken from the store, police said, but when food stamp cards didn't work as they arrived at the registers, many customers - some with multiple buggies piled with food - became unruly.

"It was scary," said a Philadelphia businessman who'd made a quick trip to Wal-Mart.

"There were over 100 people in checkout lines all the way back to electronics. They thought they were getting free food."

He described customers having "two and three buggies each full of steak, meats and just junk food. It was a near riot."

The man said it reminded him of being on the Coast after Katrina.

"It's a sad state of affairs," he said.

Philadelphia Police were called to help clear the store as the crowd grew and tempers flared, said Police Investigator Dan Refre.

"Management wanted to shut down the store," he said. "The Police Department helped clear the store."

All officers on duty responded along with sheriff's deputies and other law enforcement officials because of the seriousness of the situation, officials said.

Officers were posted at each entrance after the store was cleared of customers about 8:30 p.m.

The store re-opened at 11 p.m., said Kayla Whaling, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart.

"The issue was resolved and the stores are now handling EBT purchases again," she said. "The Philadelphia incident is being investigated. The store was closed for the safety of customers and employees."

Wal-Mart employees reported over Facebook that people were acting hostile.

"They shut down because it was a safety hazard to the employees who work there," one said. "I work there and got off at 8 and was scared to death because people were acting so hostile."

Employees had to put the items in the abandoned shopping buggies back in the shelves after the store closed.

"It's closed because we employees had to put all that stuff back on the shelves. It was sad we had to close but if you would've saw the mess then you would understand," another employee wrote.

Nikki Savage stopped at Wal-Mart Saturday night to pick up a few items after spending the day at homecoming at East Central Community College.

"I saw people with these buggies of food so I stopped and talked to the people to see what was going on," Savage said.

"While I was in there talking, they locked the doors. You could go out but they would let anyone else come in."

The issue started nationally when computer problems caused electronic payments for EBT cards to fail.

Mississippi Department of Human Services director Rickey Berry said Xerox handles the electronic payments for 17 states, including Mississippi.

The company had computer problems for several hours Saturday, but those were being fixed, Berry told The Associated Press.

He said the problems are not because of a partial shutdown of the federal government.

Despite the system being down, many customers at the Philadelphia store attempted to continue purchasing. In some parts of the country cards showed unrestricted purchases and shelves were emptied.

Shelves in Wal-Mart stores in Springhill and Mansfield, La., were reportedly cleared Saturday night when the stores allowed purchases on EBT cards even though they were not showing limits, KSLA reported.

In Philadelphia, once customers realized they couldn't buy anything they abandoned their buggies in front of the registers.

A photo sent to The Neshoba Democrat of the incident showed more than a dozen fully-loaded carts left at the entrance.

Another photo showed a line of customers waiting to check out, each with one or more fully-loaded carts. A constable and Sheriff's deputy could be seen in the background observing the line.

One shopper in the store at the time said, "It was packed."

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, informally known as food stamps, provides aid for low-income people. Recipients use electronic-benefit transfer cards similar to debit cards.

Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, and DHS says about 600,000 residents receive food stamps. That's in a population of nearly 3 million.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said his office received complaints about the cards being rejected in several Mississippi counties, in his Delta district and beyond. He said he was contacting federal and state agencies about the situation.

Berry acknowledged Saturday is a big grocery shopping day. He said DHS employees worked several hours to try to resolve the situation.

"I know there are a lot of mad people," Berry said.



The Associated Press contributed to this story