Rita Nurmi looked like a 5-year-old in a candy store as she wedged her way between the waist-high crates of cereal.
Her eyes shone at the sight of piles of food, all neatly boxed, stacked and labeled. She peered happily around the drafty warehouse and spotted one goodie after the next.
"Wow, this is just great!" she exclaimed, looking at a box of potato chips. "Anything you can spare, we can use."
The administrative assistant at Second Genesis, a residential drug treatment center in Crownsville, was excited by the chance to augment her food budget for 121 patients by picking up some freebies. But Nurmi's first trip to the Anne Arundel County Food Bank in Deale also brought back memories of a more troubled time in her life.
The 34-year-old recovering addict once skipped meals to scrape up enough money for the rent. She knows about the bureaucratic hurdles in getting assistance from government agencies. And she's still grateful for the "no-strings-attached" help that's available at soup kitchens and food banks.
"I've been in that situation where you're broke and all the bills are piling up. Thank God, there are places like this," she told Bruce Michalec, the 51-year-old director of the county's food bank.
Michalec has heard the same words over and over again in the last two years. Since outgoing County Executive O. James Lighthizer agreed to set aside $25,000 a year to open a local food bank, Michalec has run across a lot of heart-wrenching stories.
He's seen families living without electricity, because they can't pay the bills and still feed their children. He's met couples camping out in cars because they've been evicted. And he's taken food to divorced mothers who own expensive dresses and live in $200,000 homes, but can't afford to feed their children alone.
"One of my major concerns is the hidden poor," he said. "You have to be just about destitute to get government aid, so a lot of poor people out there aren't on the welfare rolls. No one except the churches knows where they are."
A former manager of four shoe stores in Connecticut, Michalec left the corporate world for charitable work when he moved to Annapolis two years ago.
His altruistic switch was unplanned. When he took a part-time job delivering federal surplus to 28 soup kitchens and church pantries in the county, Michalec recalls being amazed by the demand for the most basic staples.
"The churches kept saying they needed more food," he remembers. "I said to myself, 'How can this be? This is a wealthy county.' " Prompted by the demand for regular donations, Michalec and several other volunteers lobbied the County Council to budget money for a local food bank. When Lighthizer gave his stamp of approval, the group set up a warehouse in a 43-year-old former community hall in Deale.
But the food bank is small and frequently overlooked. Even though Michalec often works 10- or 12-hour days collecting and delivering food, many people in the county have never heard of the program, he conceded.
A thin, wiry man, most comfortable in jeans and worn sneakers, Michalec runs the program almost single-handedly. Volunteers and seven men who have been sentenced to community service help sort and stack donated food, children's clothing and toys on weekends. The rest of the time, Michalec is on his own.
Until this year, he didn't even have a truck to deliver the food. He used to load the crates of food into a van or pickup for his daily runs.
A new $30,000 truck permits Michalec to stock up on supplies from the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore and pick up surplus from fast-food restaurants and grocery stores.
He expects to spend more time on the road this winter. The county's 34 emergency soup kitchens and shelters are bracing for long lines with the economic slowdown.
In a survey earlier this year, the Maryland Food Committee found a sharp increase in the number of families requesting food in the Baltimore metropolitan region. The private, non-profit group charted a 24 percent increase in families turning to food pantries for the first time between 1989 and 1990.
The 18 pantries surveyed served 3,646 people. Two-thirds were poor families with children under age 18, while the rest were mainly seniors.
Michalec is gearing up for the committee's annual Bags of Plenty food drive Wednesday, when grocery bags will be distributed throughout Baltimore and the five surrounding counties in The Sun and The Evening Sun.
Citing an "unprecedented increase in demand for emergency food," committee officials are urging people to fill the bags with canned goods and staples. The bags can be dropped off at Provident Bank branches or Giant supermarkets. Readers also can clip coupons and send money to the Maryland Food Committee.
Michalec will drive to Giant stores across the county to pick up the filled grocery bags. The food will be donated to the Maryland Food Bank, which serves soup kitchens across the state. More than 525,000 pounds of food were collected last year.
Officials hope to collect even more food this year because of what they called the "proliferation of local food banks and the softening of the economy."
"With the recession and more people in need, it's absolutely critical," said Bill Ewing, director of the Maryland Food Bank. "If you asked me three years ago, I would have said it's nice. Now, it's critical."
Michalec agreed. "Things like the unemployment rates and the 10-cent increase in gas will definitely hurt people this winter."
Donations to the food bank, either through Bags of Plenty or directly, are accepted at any time. Call 956-6917.