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Computer glitch blocks food-stamp purchases

Sonoma County's nearly 35,000 food-stamp recipients couldn't use their debit-style cards for most of Saturday after a computer snafu knocked out the purchasing system in 17 states.

Frustrated cardholders heard rumors that the problems were linked to the federal government's partial shutdown. But vendor Xerox Corp. blamed the problem on a routine test of its backup systems that resulted in a system failure.

Xerox announced late Saturday that access had been restored for users in the 17 states affected by the outage. Along with California, the outage affected Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

The outage affected those enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, assistance commonly referred to as food stamps. In California, it's called CalFresh.

The problem began Saturday morning. Soon cardholders or their family members were reporting that stores around Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park were unable to process purchases with the cards, which use a system known as electronic benefits transfer, or EBT.

Teejay Lowe, CEO of G&G Supermarkets in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, acknowledged the frustration for both grocers and residents who depend on the system to put food on the table.

"We're both at a loss of trying to feed people when these things don't work," he said.

Rayma Zwinge, a retired nurse who lives in Rohnert Park, has grandchildren who benefit from the program. She said frustration over the outage was exacerbated because of repeated talk at the stores her family visited that the food stamp program had been affected by the government's partial shutdown.

That made it sound like food-stamp recipients might have to wait a long time to use their cards again.

"It's so frustrating," Zwinge said.

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