CROWNSVILLE – Bruce Michalec has a history of feeding people.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Michalec, 67, spent the first several years of his life moving among Air Force bases all over the country while his father navigated B-29 bombers in the Pacific in World War II.
In 1949, he made the 21-day sea journey with his family to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where his parents were helping to run the post-war federal food aid program.
“We were feeding the world,” Michalec said of his time in the Philippines. “I saw people with nothing. It always struck me that these folks could smile.”
More than half a century later, Michalec is still trying to feed the world and to make folks smile as the executive director of the Anne Arundel County Food and Resource Bank, which he runs out of the Old Central Kitchen in the Crownsville Hospital Center. The hospital center, formerly a mental institution, now houses about 15 nonprofits.
“In a sense, I’m doing what my parents did, only I’m doing it here at home,” Michalec said from his food bank office, a room cluttered with candy boxes and other bits of overflow from the storage rooms.
And while the food bank has an abundance of some things, this year has not been the most fruitful in terms of food donations, Michalec said.
After one of his “best years in the business,” Michalec said that he is seeing his first drop-off in food donations since he started working for the food bank about 20 years ago. Donations are off by about 15,000 pounds just in Anne Arundel, he said, and he estimated that statewide donations are short also. (Officials of the Maryland Food Bank, however, say their donations are about the same last year.)
Michalec said he cannot be sure what has caused people to give less. Maybe people are burned out from giving to the hurricane victims in the Gulf of Mexico, he suggested, or maybe people are just worried about how they are going to pay their electricity bills.
“Sometimes, you never find out why,” he said.
Diana Loar of the Western Maryland Food Bank in Cumberland said her region is seeing a loss as well. While the numbers were up in her region for a part of the Harvest for the Hungry drive in which postal workers pick up bags of food at mailboxes, she said, all other donations have dropped off.
“People have so few dollars to donate in our area,” she said. “We have all suffered from the lack of donations.”
Still, Michalec says he will press on.
“We’ll tighten our belts,” he said.
Fay Mauro, executive director of the Volunteer Center for Anne Arundel County, said Michalec is “the founder and the soul of the food bank here. He never turns anyone away.”
Mauro said that she loves to send volunteers to the food bank, partially because Michalec accomplishes so much on “less than a shoestring.”
And that shoestring extends beyond just food. A quick walk through the premises reveals a wealth of necessities and “by the way stuff,” as Michalec calls it: refrigerators, washer-dryers, beds, dressers, wheelchairs, a room filled to the ceiling with wooden chairs, mattresses, school supplies, toys, bicycles, curtains, sheets, exercise equipment, pianos – the list goes on and on.
“If somebody needed a bag of food, for Pete’s sake, they probably needed other things,” Michalec said, grinning a grin that shows more than a few missing teeth, but that is infectious nonetheless.
It seems nearly impossible to separate Michalec from his food bank – he almost always refers to the organization as a whole as “I” or at least “we” – even though he says repeatedly that it is not his, but everyone’s.
After leaving the Philippines in the mid-1950s, Michalec ran a restaurant in South Korea immediately following the war there. He returned to the United States in 1960, running restaurants until he started a job leasing apartments.
He began feeling unsatisfied with his work in the early 1980s, and he decided to take on a part-time job helping to run the federal surplus food program, which supplies low-income households with food items that cannot be sold at retail for mostly cosmetic reasons.
The new work made a big impact.
“It got a hold of me,” Michalec said. “I felt better when I went home.”
Soon Michalec left his old job and took on work at the food bank full-time, running it as a full-service resource bank only on the funds a regular food bank would get from the state.
Annapolis City Administrator Robert D. Agee, who was an aide in the Anne Arundel County Executive’s office when Michalec took over the food bank, said that he was impressed with Michalec’s business-like management style and his “reserved and unassuming” demeanor.
“I think he’s just done an extraordinary job there,” he said. “I’ve never approached Bruce with an issue out there, whether it was furniture or food, that he didn’t make a real, concerted effort to deal with.”
Six years ago, the food bank moved into its current Crownsville location, but, much to Michalec’s chagrin, it may not be there much longer. The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced it will be turning the property over to the county in June 2007, leaving the fate of the food bank and all the other Crownsville nonprofits up in the air.
“I’m a little nervous,” said Michalec, who has urged both the state and the county not to have his operation moved. “There’s a heart beating here.”
Elizabeth Barnard, director of the department’s office of planning and capital financing, said that the old hospital’s tenants have already been given a year’s extension – ownership was originally supposed to change in June of this year – and that it’s time they found another place.
“All the tenants have been notified that they need to look for another location,” she said. “We told them two years ago that they need to find a new place. We’ve urged folks to contact the county.”
A county study found that it will be extremely costly to bring the Crownsville complex up to code, remove asbestos and replace water and electrical systems.
Even so, Michalec has hope that he can stay put in Crownsville, where the food bank keeps up a Christmas tree throughout the year – though decorated appropriately for all the different holidays – to keep folks in a spirit of giving. He is a little embarrassed about the tree at the moment, since it’s still bearing St. Patrick’s Day decorations.
“It’ll be an Easter tree soon” he said, noting that the tree is decorated by volunteers.
“Everybody likes to have a little piece of this business here,” Michalec says. “It doesn’t belong to me.” Still, he holds it a little closer than most. It isn’t long before he’s saying that anybody who wants to bring something down – whatever it may be – is free to come and take a look at the place.