Giving It All Away
Last year, Bruce Michalec’s bank gave away $1.25 million. It was his busiest in 27 years, but 2013 is on track to break the 2012 record. That’s because hunger and need are the forces that drive the growth of Anne Arundel County’s central food bank.
Hunger is an everyday thing, says Michalec, whose bank started small back in 1985 with “a truck, a freezer and a place to put it all.” That first place was a building rented from the Cedar Grove United Methodist Church in Deale.
From those small beginnings, the bank has grown to match the needs of the community. From food, the bank expanded to include furniture, in 1986, and medical supplies, in 1990. In 2004, the bank moved to the Crownsville Hospital Center. Now it needs more space.
As a young man, Michalec worked Washington, D.C. restaurants “that served presidents” until the Vietnam War pulled him away. But when he moved to Maryland in the mid 1980s, he was a young victim of age discrimination. Unable to find a job, he worked part-time with Tom Parlett at the federal food program Operation Food Sharing, which made quarterly food distributions.
But people who are hungry are hungry every day. So with a small group of concerned citizens, Michalec founded the Anne Arundel County Food Bank in 1985.
Given for Free
The Anne Arundel County Food & Resources Bank, as it is now called, supplies human needs from fresh bread to walkers to couches and cribs.
“I’ve even given away cars and boats. One day we will get an airplane,” Michalec jokes. “Someone wants to give us one. They just don’t know about us yet.”
About half the food comes from federal food programs. The rest — and all of the other goods — is donated at food drives or by individuals, retail stores and the county school system. Volunteers, inmates and parolees sentenced to community service work with the staff to keep the bank in business day in and day out.
The Crownsville Hospital Center complex’s old central kitchen is home base for the ever-growing bank. Walk-in freezers and refrigerators provide storage for fruits and vegetables. The old slaughter room still has the overhead conveyor system, but now it houses cribs, strollers and formula.
Room after room is bursting with food and goods to share. A room filled with supplies for the cooks at free-lunch programs is followed by one with pallets of sugar, water, trail mix and juice. Another is stacked almost to the ceiling with walkers and bedside commodes, while yet another holds row upon row of couches, dressers and desks.
The food bank has already expanded to two offsite food storage locations and an old gym in the hospital complex is brimming with more furniture. The bank is full to the overflowing.
All his deposits, Michalec gives away for free. Otherwise, he figures, if someone needs an appliance like a refrigerator, she will use her food money to buy it. He wants to make sure people can use their food money for food.
“The table me and my kids eat off of, he gave it to me,” says Minnie Brown, a volunteer chef at the food bank. “He is a sweetheart.”
In 2012 alone, the food bank fed more than 40,000 households through 79 pantries and soup kitchens that served over half a million meals. Over 120,000 people received food from the bank; 73 families got appliances and 364 families took home furniture and household items.
“He knows what people need because he needed those things himself,” says Susan Thomas, the food bank’s assistant manager. There were days when Michalec’s family went without necessities, and now he has made it his life goal to make sure that no one in Anne Arundel County has to do the same.
“He is particularly affected by the children,” Thomas says. “He has bought them shoes, clothes, school supplies — out of his own pocket.”
Received with Gratitude
Michalec also helps people in ways that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
Lawrence Totty found that out when he came to work at the food bank through a correction center work program. He was given responsibilities and challenges that improved his self-esteem. When Totty’s sentence was served, Michalec offered him a job as a warehouse foreman.
“On October 2, 2013, I will celebrate two years of sobriety,” Totty says, “something I have not been able to do since I was 13. If it had not been for Bruce, I would not have the life I have today.”
Michalec has touched the lives of people he may never meet.
Sher Atkinson, of the Annapolis Middle School Backpack Buddies Program, credits an expanding program to the food bank. Each Friday, the program sends middle-schoolers home with a backpack of food for the weekend. Atkinson receives non-perishables (cereal, granola bars and snacks) from the food bank. “Now, with our limited budget, we can buy fresh fruits, which the kids don’t get much of at home,” Atkinson says. “Next year, we will be serving about 75 kids, something that wouldn’t be possible without the help of the food bank.”
As well as community thanks, Michalec has the loyalty of his board of directors. He has been supported by governors and county executives, across political parties. He could not have gotten to where he is today without the help of these supporters, Michalec says.
With those allies, the food bank has grown year by year by word of mouth and on a “food bank budget.”
Michalec has even bigger dreams for the future. He hopes to find another building to store furniture, so people can come and shop. Working with Parlett, he imagines turning the entire old Crownsville Hospital Complex into a non-profit park, where other good-doing organizations can base their operations alongside his.
In the present, Michalec and the food bank will continue this economy of charity, offering goods and second chances.
“This place belongs to everyone. This is a place of redemption. This is a place to start again,” Michalec says.
On May 16, Michalec is honored by his board at the annual meeting of member agencies for “27 years of incredible compassion, steadfast dedication, and hard work.” Citations from Governor Martin O’Malley, Speaker of the House Michael Busch and Senator John Astle and a letter of gratitude from Congressman Steny Hoyer will make the honor official.