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Home Sweet Home: Avon's surprising food pantry origins

Updated: Mar 21

This is an updated version of the story that first appeared in the October edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication — this update contains further info and quotes from Avon Food Pantry manager Mary Lou Connors



By Bruce Deckert — Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief


WHEN CONTEMPLATING the history of the Avon Food Pantry, there’s no place like home. James and Barbara Martino established the food pantry in 1963, the year they moved to Avon, in what might be considered an unconventional location — their home.

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Yet since home is where the heart is, and a heart to help neighbors in need is at the core of such an enterprise, perhaps there is no more appropriate place to start a food pantry.


“My wife started it,” says James (aka Jim) Martino Jr. “She wanted to help the less fortunate in our community, so we started the food pantry. We ran it out of our basement for many years until we got space in Avon Town Hall in the late 1970s, before we transitioned over to Saint Ann’s church.”


Today, the food pantry is still located at the Church of Saint Ann, a Roman Catholic parish at the corner of Arch Road and West Avon Road. The volunteer-run pantry is open on Tuesdays from 9:30-11:30 a.m. and serves about 45 households per week, according to Martino.


Town residents who request support need to register with the Avon Social Services Department to validate financial need.


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“We relaxed these rules during the COVID pandemic,” says Martino, “but they are back in place now.”


When the food pantry began six decades ago, Avon didn’t have a formal social services office.


“Before Avon had a social services department, the town clerk was social services,” Martino explains. “Our town clerk was Caroline LaMonica. When people needed a helping hand they went to the town clerk, and we went to her when we started the food pantry. She and I worked together for almost 50 years.”


They worked as colleagues because Martino was also a town employee — he served as Avon’s police chief for 18 years, retiring in 2001.


He began his career with the Avon Police Department in 1961, serving four decades overall. He sees a strong connection between his police work and the food pantry.


“It was just a natural fit between the police department, community and social services,” he says, noting that the main motivation has always been “to help those who need additional support as a way to give back and support our community.”


After LaMonica retired in 2006, her daughter Ann (LaMonica) Dearstyne became the town clerk. Ann’s husband, Ron Dearstyne, was an Avon police officer.


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Nonperishable food graces well-stocked shelves at the Avon Food Pantry

“When he left us, he went to the state’s attorney office and was a prosecutor for a number of years,” says Martino.


At some juncture after the Avon Social Services Department was formed, Jim and Barbara were required to receive formal certification: “Both of us had to go to school to run the pantry,” Jim says. “There’s a diploma hanging in the basement of the church.”


The January 2019 edition of the Town of Avon Newsletter includes this note: “Our sponsors and donors are incredibly important, but without the tireless, generous and fiercely dedicated efforts of Jim and Barbara Martino, the Avon Food Pantry, and its programs, would not exist. The Town is deeply grateful to the Martino family!”


Barbara Martino died on Sept. 11, 2021 at 85 years of age. Earlier that year, she and Jim celebrated their 60th anniversary. Their sons James Martino III and Harold Martino and his wife Elizabeth are Avon residents.


When Barbara’s health declined in 2019, Jim stepped aside from his weekly involvement as food pantry director because “my wife required my attention and I needed to focus on her care.”


He appreciates the food pantry’s volunteers who took the baton at that time: “They all stepped up when my wife became ill — I’d like to give a lot of credit to them. The food pantry wouldn’t exist without them.”


It takes a village to raise a child — so says the time-honored proverb. Likewise, nurturing and supporting a food pantry is a total team effort undertaken by a network of often-unsung volunteers. Avon’s core volunteer group is comprised of Mary Lou Connors, Jim Spieck, and Gary and Judy Balich. Sometimes more people pitch in on Tuesdays, and others are committed in other ways.


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“The food pantry would not be what it is today without the help of our volunteers" — Jim Martino • food pantry director

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For example: Lou and Fran Witkowski, who own Smith Farm in Avon, visit local supermarkets several times each week to pick up surplus bread, produce and meat — and then deliver the food to homeless shelters, soup kitchens and food banks in Greater Hartford, including the Avon Food Pantry.


After Barbara’s passing Jim Martino resumed his involvement at the food pantry, and he is still the director in title, but Connors is the de facto manager.


“She currently runs and organizes all events related to the food pantry,” says Martino, who has lived in Avon for 60 years. “The food pantry would not be what it is today without the help of our volunteers.”


Connors began volunteering at the food pantry in 2016 — at Martino's invitation, as she recalls — after her retirement from Hartford-based Saint Francis Hospital, where she was a nurse for 50 years.


Regarding her desire to serve, she offers a straightforward rationale.


“It's a good serviceable way to help townfolk and give back to the community that's given so much to me — it's my pleasure to return to the community in this way,” says Connors, who has lived in Avon since 1984.


She has likewise been a parishioner at Saint Ann for nearly four decades. Since she began lending a hand seven years ago, this altruistic enterprise has expanded its scope, due to the impact of the pandemic and other factors.


“The pantry has grown,” Connors notes. “We're servicing more people now and the need is greater.”


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The bread table at the Avon Food Pantry

Judy and Gary Balich moved from Hartford to Avon in 1983 and became parishioners at Saint Ann the same year. Judy started volunteering at the food pantry in 2019 soon after she retired from the New Jersey-based Selective Insurance Group.


Asked what motivated her to get involved, she replies, “Jim was my motivation — he was looking for help at the food pantry — and Mary Lou too. I knew them both from church. They asked, and I said absolutely, I’d be happy to help.”


Gary began volunteering in 2020 after COVID hit. He was semi-retired at the time, working part-time as a driver for Canton-based Martel Transportation. Before that, he had managed his own business, Balich Design Services, a consulting firm that focused on commercial interior space. When the COVID shutdown put his driver role on hold, he joined Judy at the food pantry.


“It started out as a couple hours on Tuesday morning, and now it’s about eight or nine hours a week,” Judy says. “It really is rewarding — I’ve met some great people, both volunteers and food pantry clients.”


Historically, volunteers have also come from within the Martino family. When Jim and Barbara started this operation in 1963 they had no children, but soon enough their two sons were born, and down the road grandchildren arrived on the scene.


“The two boys and the grandkids helped their mother and grandmother at the food pantry,” Jim says.


Avon Town Council chairman Dan Polhamus underscores that a primary role of government is to safeguard the health and well-being of citizens.


“As a community, we have a responsibility to recognize the potential for any one of us to fall upon hard times,” he says, “and likewise there is shared responsibility to help each other out of these situations.”


Today Magazine asked Martino whether food insecurity is primarily a liberal issue or a conservative issue, or simply an issue connected to basic human compassion. His reply: “This has never been politically motivated — we felt this was a need and wanted to give back to our community.”


The food pantry is stocked by Connecticut Foodshare, volunteer food drives and donations from individuals, businesses and organizations, including the Avon Volunteer Fire Department and the Avon-Canton Chamber of Commerce.


“Our church just had a food drive,” Martino says. “We never turn any food away — there’s always a need.” +


Look for a story on the 40th anniversary of the Canton Food Bank in an upcoming edition of Today Magazine


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