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Food Bank Redux: Canton celebrates 40th anniversary

This article first appeared as the cover story in the December edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication


By Bruce Deckert — Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief


THREE ICONIC SONGS from the 1980s speak to the timeless theme of helping neighbors in need — Another Day In Paradise, Man In The Mirror and Under Pressure. That melodious decade also witnessed the birth of a local food bank.



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Established in 1983, the Canton Food Bank is celebrating its 40th anniversary — and 2023 also marks the one-year milestone of a new leader at the nonprofit. Longtime food bank director Pat Lazauski handed the director’s baton to Jennifer Herbek

in 2022.


A Simsbury resident, Herbek attends First Congregational Church in Canton Center. For a few weeks in the spring of 2022, she noticed an advertisement in the church bulletin regarding the need for a new Canton Food Bank director and contacted Lazauski about the volunteer opportunity.


A Canton resident for 35 years, Lazauski was looking to relinquish her leadership role after moving to Torrington last year.


“We were able to work together for six weeks,” says Herbek, who was appointed director after meeting with the food bank’s board. “I worked closely with Pat, shadowing her and learning how the process works.”


In midsummer 2022 — on Monday, August 1 — Herbek took the reins solo.


The food bank is located at Trinity Episcopal Church in the Collinsville section of Canton, on River Road aka Route 179, and is part of the Connecticut Foodshare network. Foodshare is affiliated with Feeding America, a national network of food banks, food pantries and meal programs.


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Canton resident Heather Neumann and Canton Food Bank director Jennifer Herbek — photo by Tom Kutz • 860-693-6254 • www.tomkutzphoto.com

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Distribution hours for Canton Food Bank clients are as follows:

• Mondays — 6:00-7:00 p.m.

• Tuesdays — 7:30-11:30 a.m.


“Reading that church bulletin was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” says Herbek. “Tuesdays tend to be a long morning — you need to be a people person. It’s a good fit for me.”


The food bank receives ongoing donations to supply the nutrition needs of qualified Canton residents, who apply to the Canton Senior & Social Services department for approval. Donations of nonperishable food arrive from an assortment of sources besides Foodshare: businesses, churches and organizations — via food drives and other collection mechanisms — as well as local individuals and families.


Monetary donations provide funds for buying perishable items such as cheese, eggs, fresh produce, meat and yogurt.


“The fresh food options help to bridge the gap between hunger and health and wellness,” says Herbek.


This year the food bank has served 40-50 families each week, an average of about 120 Canton citizens, distributing about 940 pounds of food weekly — the equivalent of approximately 780 meals. About 15 volunteers lend a hand each week, per Herbek. Her director’s role is fully volunteer, and the available volunteer team numbers about 60.

Canton Food Bank director Jennifer Herbek — outside Trinity Episcopal Church, where the food bank is based • photo by Tom Kutz • 860-693-6254 • www.tomkutzphoto.com

In 2021 and 2022, the food bank served about 100 people each week, according to the Trinity website.


“We strive to make families feel welcomed,” says Herbek, “and to be a community resource helping to relieve the stress of making financial trade-offs when dealing with food security.”


The terms food security and food insecurity are common in the social-service realm. Let’s consider the following definitions from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:


food insecurity — being unable to consistently access or afford adequate food •

food security — being able to consistently access or afford adequate food •


In Greater Hartford, the Farmington Valley has a reputation for excellent public school systems, rural-suburban beauty and overall affluence — yet some local residents endure food insecurity and live precariously on meager paychecks, hand-to-mouth, from month-to-month.


This is why food banks and pantries in every Valley town step in the breach to strengthen families, in hopes of offering community support until a family is able to get back on its financial feet.


About 10% of Canton citizens avail themselves of the opportunity to shop for free at the food bank, according to town officials and Connecticut Foodshare statistics.


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MORAL MANDATE

“There’s a moral obligation to feed the hungry,” says Canton First Selectman Bob Bessel.

“But there are social and economic reasons too. Children who are hungry can’t learn. Adults who are hungry can’t work, raise families and fully participate in our society. We don’t have to look very far to see how food insecurity undermines basic social structures.”


The Canton Food Bank has been based at Trinity Episcopal Church since its inception four decades ago. Charlotte Goodwin Craig was the founder and first director, per Herbek.

Pat Lazauski began volunteering at the food bank in 2007. She became co-director in 2011 and undertook the director’s duties in 2012. Ten years later, she handed the baton to Herbek. Prior to Lazauski’s tenure, Canton resident Peggy Pinton was the director.


“I was honored to help people,” Lazauski says. “Being able to help people out and keep them on their feet, especially those who lost their job and needed food to keep going — I was honored to do that and felt that was what I had to do.”


Lazauski has attended First United Methodist Church in Torrington for about 40 years. She worked as an attendant at the Canton transfer station from 1999-2006. After serving at the food bank for 15 years, she continues to be in contact with some food bank clients.


“I hear from them today — I get notes and calls,” Lazauski says. “Working with them for so many years, they become your friends, or at least acquaintances. Each week, they were always so thankful. I enjoyed the giving and they enjoyed the receiving.”


Herbek has likewise relished her management role at the Canton Food Bank. She is “really motivated” to move this enterprise forward. In June she attended a Connecticut Foodshare symposium.


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Volunteers Heather Neumann and Lee Carvalho — both Canton residents — and food bank director Jennifer Herbek • photo by Tom Kutz • 860-693-6254 • www.tomkutzphoto.com

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“The conference was phenomenal — I saw the possibility of what can happen when you say yes in your community,” she says. “It was a very moving day. There was discussion about removing the stigma of asking for assistance, and we were made aware of programs that so many people don’t know about.”


Herbek and her family initially moved to Simsbury in December 2002. They relocated to California in 2017 but returned to Simsbury in 2020. Her husband Eric Herbek is the chief managed care officer at Mass General Brigham. They have two daughters in college and a son who is a senior at Simsbury High School.


Jennifer Herbek is no stranger to the volunteer arena.


Prior to taking the reins in Canton, she assisted at the Foodshare facility in Bloomfield. She has volunteered for the Parent Teacher Organization at Latimer Lane School, serving as the chair for a PTO fundraiser. And she currently is a co-chair for the Simsbury Second Chance Shop, a non-profit thrift store that supports the Village for Families & Children, a Hartford-based social service agency. Fellow Simsbury resident Julie Zehren is the other co-chair.


As Bessel has noted, the reasons for helping hungry people are evident. Karanne Farling, the senior warden at Trinity Episcopal, offers her take on the church’s motivation for hosting the Canton Food Bank.


“Even in an affluent community like Canton, people struggle financially and experience food insecurity,” says Farling, a West Simsbury resident. “By providing a space to store and distribute donated food, we are helping respond to a community need. … We are in an accessible location and have the amenities to make it possible for people to access the food bank easily.”


Someone might object: What about people who are able but unwilling to work — should they receive free food?


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“I saw the possibility of what can happen when you say yes in your community" — Jennifer Herbek • Canton Food Bank director

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Bessel observes that the ability to work can be connected to the inner heart-and-mind challenges that arise as a result of embedded human issues and the ongoing pressures of life in a too-often dysfunctional world — in other words, the mental health realm.


“Many of us find it difficult to imagine why someone could be unwilling to work,” Bessel says. “Work gives life purpose, a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. To forsake those benefits could be a sign of mental health issues.”


Further, he asks three compelling questions: “Should we punish people with mental health issues by withholding food? Will withholding food goad them into work? For me, the answer to both of these questions is no. What other reasons would there be to withhold food?”


Meanwhile, Farling addresses the nuts-and-bolts aspect of this key question about the ability to work and food-bank eligibility.


“We offer the venue for food distribution, and the town of Canton does vetting of eligibility for receiving benefits,” she says. “It is not our place or our role to judge the reasons why families or individuals qualify for assistance, as local public welfare policies determine this.”


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FUNDRAISING FUN

The Canton Food Bank benefits from a veritable symphony of creative fundraising initiatives and partners. One especially significant partner has been the Canton Community Health Fund, to the tune of $58,000 in grants since CCHF was planted in 1997 as the offshoot of the Canton Visiting Nurse Association and the Visiting Nurse Association — for further details, see the accompanying sidebar article.


In November, Canton High School sports teams donated an impressive quantity of nonperishable items. Befitting the athletic theme, the teams competed via a food-drive contest to see who could collect the most food.


Earlier this year, the food bank was selected to be the beneficiary of the Stop & Shop Bloomin’ 4 Good Program at the grocery chain’s Unionville location. The food bank received a $1 donation for every Bloomin’ 4 Good bouquet purchased in January and February — a total of $180 was donated.


“Flowers can make someone’s day, brighten a room or spread a smile,” Herbek says. “They can fight hunger too — the money generated allows us to provide healthy, nutritious meals for our clients.”


In December 2022, the food bank received $2750 from the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford through an annual fundraising program.


Meanwhile, the Avon-Canton Chamber of Commerce has conducted an ongoing initiative for local food banks and pantries — creatively entitled the One Can Make A Difference Food Drive — whereby participants bring nonperishable staples to COC events.


The Canton Food Bank is for Canton residents who complete an application with the Senior & Social Services department. +


Canton Senior & Social Services  www.townofcantonct.org • 860-693-5811


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