During the 2011-2012 fiscal year, inmates on work release provided $161,220 worth of labor at the food bank. Inmates earn a day off their jail term for every day they work at the pantry. At any given time, Michalec has a staff of 11 inmates and one or two people performing community service. Service hours accounted for about $6,300 worth of free labor last year.

"I never had a problem with them," Michalec said of the inmate staff. He said the workers are good to him, providing the heavy lifting. "They've made the program a success."

And they respond to the respect and trust he conveys.

"He trusts me," Totty said. "I'm a supervisor, I supervise inmates, everything that comes in and out of the building."

"We are helping them," Michalec said, "and that trains them in work ethics and how to become better citizens with a better work attitude. And it's giving them work experience."

Michalec has found the program uncomfortably in the spotlight in recent weeks, as former Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold has been performing 400 hours of court-ordered community service in the food bank office, manning the phones. Convicted in January of misconduct in office, Leopold served a combined two months of jail and home detention. He is on probation.

"I like it," Leopold said between calls on a recent weekday. The community service, Leopold said, gives him an inside view of the work of the food bank, which he visited while in office.

A few callers have recognized his voice on the phone, asking, "Mr. Leopold, is that you?" he said. On a serious note, he said he is more impressed than ever with Michalec's operation.

For Michalec, giving an inmate a job reference — or a bed for a newly rented room — is a reward that hasn't gotten old over 27 years. That sense of reward seems to have rubbed off on others, too.

Work-release inmate David Thompson, 35, said once he's out of jail, he'll make sure he has something better to do with his spare time than the drugs that brought him trouble.

"I'll be coming back to help him out," he said. "I'll volunteer."