FOOD-STAMP EBT GLITCH SPURS JERSEY BUYING SPREE

TRENTON, N.J. -- A data-processing error that credited the electronic benefits transfer accounts of 140,000 New Jersey food-stamp recipients 11 days early triggered an unexpected shopping spree at some of the state's supermarkets for two days last week.From early Sunday, March 21 until mid-afternoon the following day when the error was corrected, recipients of the early windfall spent about $5 million

TRENTON, N.J. -- A data-processing error that credited the electronic benefits transfer accounts of 140,000 New Jersey food-stamp recipients 11 days early triggered an unexpected shopping spree at some of the state's supermarkets for two days last week.

From early Sunday, March 21 until mid-afternoon the following day when the error was corrected, recipients of the early windfall spent about $5 million of April's $23 million in total food-stamp benefits, according to Jacqueline Tencza, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Human Services.

"It demonstrates the ability of EBT to have an impact very quickly," said Phil Shanholtzer, news branch chief for the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, which helps coordinate states' moves toward EBT. "People get quick access to their benefits but mistakes are manifested quickly as well." Shanholtzer told SN he had never heard about another EBT error on the order of the New Jersey problem.

When some food-stamp recipients discovered the unexpectedly large balances in their EBT accounts early that Sunday, "word got out and it brought people into stores," said Linda Doherty, vice president of the New Jersey Food Council here, a lobbying association that represents the state's supermarket retailers.

Sales volumes were so high, and lines so long, that "customers got frustrated and left things in line," in affected stores, Doherty added. "One store in Camden, N.J., had 35 [full shopping carts] that were just left. Some retailers said it was what they envisioned the Y2K problem would be like."

Early media reports indicated the error was due to New Jersey's efforts to deal with the year-2000 computer problem, but it now appears to have been caused by a combination of human error and use of a backup computer system. The Department of Human Services routinely transmits a file with recipient information to its EBT contractor, Deluxe Payment Systems, Milwaukee, during the third week of the month.

"There was inadequate disk space on the computer, so the technician at the Office of Information and Technology ran the file off another computer," said Tencza. "It was necessary to add some basic information, and the technician typed in '199' for the year, and the computer filled the blank field with a zero," reading it as 1990 rather than 1999.

"When the information was transmitted to Deluxe, their computer perceived the benefits as being late and posted them immediately," Tencza added. "If the program had been running on our regular computer the mistake would have been caught."

The Department of Human Services acknowledged that it was responsible for the mistake, but officials were "still weighing" whether they would completely or partially replace the accessed benefits at some point in April, said Tencza. Households consisting of a mother and two children receive benefits in the $275 to $300 per month range, she added.

"On the one hand, we would like people to be accountable for their actions," she said. "On the other hand, we know that many people will be without food by the middle of April if they spent all their food-stamp money early, and we also know that many food-stamp households consist of children."

For retailers, "our next concern is when food-stamp recipients come into supermarkets on April 1," said Doherty. "Supermarkets don't want to inconvenience customers, especially those shopping for the Easter and Passover holidays. The state needs to reach out and notify recipients," about the status of their April benefits. "They can't leave it up to the stores," she added.

Tencza said the state plans to notify recipients with a letter once a decision is reached.