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Southeast Produce Council to honor Faye Westfall

Gordon M. Hochberg

Faye Westfall has been in the tomato business. She has been in the trucking business. She has run a production line. She has been in sales. She has also been a model. She has been a nurse. She has been a clown — she really did graduate from clown college.

Faye cutting the ribbon to open the trade show at Southern Exposure 2018.

Westfall has been involved with the Southeast Produce Council since its earliest days. She helped to establish one of the council's premier educational programs. She has been an officer on the board of directors. To this day, she continues to serve on a long list of SEPC committees.

Currently vice president of "Where the Food Comes From" and "Southeast Produce Weekly," she will add to her list of accomplishments this March when the Southeast Produce Council presents Faye Westfall with its highest honor, the Terry Vorhees Lifetime Achievement Award.

She will receive the award Saturday, March 9, at the Keynote Brunch, during Southern Exposure 2024, taking place March 7-9 at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, FL — which happens to be the city where the honoree was born.

"I don't think there has been anyone work as hard for the SEPC than Faye Westfall," declared David Sherrod, the council's president and CEO. "The nominating committee didn't have a hard decision to make. Being a merit-based organization, no one exemplifies that any better than Faye."

Faye receiving the SEPC Lifetime Membership Award from Brandon Parker at Southern Exposure 2020.
Faye receiving the SEPC Lifetime Membership Award
from Brandon Parker at Southern Exposure 2020.

Asked about her best qualities, Sherrod said, "Faye's best quality has always been dependability. Faye shows up and supports the SEPC across the wide scope of our activities and charitable events."

Regarding her accomplishments, Sherrod pointed to the council's Southeast Training & Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals program, noting that she has fostered "over 100 STEP-UPP participants since 2011. She is affectionately known as Mama Faye to each and every one of them."

Sherrod, who has known Westfall for more than 20 years, said that she has been "a great friend, mentor and advisor." And he has learned a lot from her. "Faye has taught me many things, but the one thing I am most grateful for is her lesson on being intentional in caring for others. She has always been very intentional at showing others her thoughtfulness through cards, emails or just a phone call to let you know she was thinking of you or offering prayers for your situation. I think that is something the world needs more of, and I'm glad she showed that to me."

He concluded, "I have watched Faye work in a male-dominated industry and succeed because she was a person who never fails to show up. She is, and always will be, a prime example of a servant leader. We all love Mama Faye!"

About Faye

Faye graduated from high school in 1964.
Faye graduated from high school
in 1964.

Faye Melnick Westfall was born April 17, 1946, in Tampa, FL, and was raised in nearby Ruskin, FL. She graduated from East Bay High School in Gibsonton, FL, in 1964. As a teenager, she worked with her parents, Joseph Andrew Melnick and Lola Mae Melnick, at Ruskin Packaging, "a company that was way ahead of its time with bagged salad, coleslaw and various greens," she said in an earlier interview. That company later became Crews and Garcia.

While in high school, she "did some modeling with Creative Fashions at Maas Brothers Department store and also with Florida Fashions," both in Tampa, she recalled.

Faye as a teenager.
Faye as a teenager.

She graduated from Carpet Clown College in 1981. She was a member and award-winning clown of Southeast Clown Association, Clowns of America and the World Clown Association, specializing in birthday parties with clown magic and face painting.

After high school, she got married and moved to Rising Sun, MD, for about two-and-a-half years. She attended nursing school in Havre de Grace, MD, during that time.

But the Sunshine State continued to exert a strong influence. "So I went back to my roots in Ruskin," she said. "I was in the trucking business for many years, hauling produce of course."

She worked at Stake Tomatoes in Ruskin, which is now DiMare Ruskin. After that, she worked for many years at J.C. Valenti Co., a tomato repack facility. That company "was purchased by Paul DiMare in 1991, and of course I stayed with DiMare," she stated. "I truly enjoyed all my years at DiMare, and they are like family to me. I always appreciated the time they allowed me to devote to SEPC and their involvement in the council as well."

Faye and her first-born child, Shelly.
Faye and her first-born child, Shelly.

In March 2020, she joined "Where The Food Comes From," where she is responsible for obtaining sponsorships for the television program and ads for the newsletter "Southeast Produce Weekly." She is "thoroughly enjoying this exciting new avenue in produce," she said.

She has four children (Shelly Riley, Melissa Giaquinto, Marina Phillips and Joe Potter), five grandchildren (Jeffrey Burnett, Abigail Potter, Sadie Potter, Anthony Giaquinto, Nicholas Giaquinto) and three great-grandchildren (Wade, Lilah and Dean Burnett). She has a younger brother, Joe Melnick.

As she has said on many occasions, "My family and my faith are my life."

Faye and her daughters in the 1970s.
Faye and her daughters in the 1970s.

Westfall began serving on the Southeast Produce Council's board of directors in 2010, culminating in 2017-18 when she led that board as president (now called chairman).

She helped to build the STEP-UPP program into one of the council's premier and valuable programs. Out of respect and admiration for her ongoing dedication to STEP-UPP, the SEPC website lists her as "den mother." And beginning a few years ago, each graduating STEP-UPP class honors one student with the Faye Westfall Award.

Westfall received the council's Lifetime Membership Award in 2020, and was named to the SEPC Board of Governors in September 2022, the first woman to serve on that advisory board.

She currently serves on five SEPC committees: Attendance Committee; Society of St. Andrew Committee; Paul Anderson Youth Home Committee; Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Committee; and, of course, STEP-UPP Committee.

Westfall was still a bit overwhelmed when The Produce News spoke to her right after SEPC leaders surprised her with the news on a video call that she thought was just about routine council business.

Faye with the STEP-UPP coordinators, Mike Roberts and Gary Baker.
Faye with the STEP-UPP coordinators, Mike Roberts and Gary Baker.

"It never crossed my mind, I didn't even question what it was all about," she said. "Then when my picture stating that I was receiving the Terry Vorhees Lifetime Achievement Award popped up on the screen, I was in shock! Then the tears of joy started. I was shocked, thrilled and humbled. I just couldn't believe it. I was in a daze all day. I think I still am. It's difficult to absorb."

The award definitely means a lot to her. "Anyone that knows me knows I am never at a loss for words, but in this case, I don't think I can find the words to describe how special this award is to me," she stated. "First of all, I just never considered myself in the running for it. But I think the fact that it is named after Terry Vorhees is what makes it even more special to me."

Westfall enjoys all aspects of the council, but STEP-UPP is probably at the top.

"I have loved being part of every committee and program that I have been involved with, but I would have to say the STEP-UPP program has been the most rewarding," she said. "I just feel like if I had one small part of helping a young person get more knowledge and experience in the produce world, if I have made any impact on them, I am thrilled."

She continued, "It is amazing to see how this program has evolved. Rick Estess had a vision, and I helped carry it out. Mike Roberts and Gary Baker have done an incredible job since I stepped down. I am so thankful they still let me be part of it. I still hear from 'my kids' who were in the program through the years. I have always said that developing relationships in produce is so important, and I stress that with each class."

Faye with Tom Page, one of the founders of the council, at the STEP-UPP reunion dinner during Southern Innovations 2015.
Faye with Tom Page, one of the founders of the council, at the
STEP-UPP reunion dinner during Southern Innovations 2015.

Asked which people were especially helpful to her during her produce career, Westfall replied, "Once again I go back to the STEP-UPP program. In the early days, Tom Page and I worked together, and he became a mentor to me. He has always been my hero."

She then turned to the DiMare family. "In the early days I worked for J.C. Valenti, known in the industry as Blue Eyes. He was an amazing man. I learned so much from him not only about produce but life in general," she said. "Then when Paul DiMare purchased J.C. Valenti Co., I had someone else to gain knowledge from. I knew Paul from before I worked for him. But after working for him, I was amazed at his passion for the produce world. He was such an innovator."

She continued, "I am also grateful to the DiMare family for allowing me to be part of SEPC all those years. They totally supported anything that I wanted to do with the council. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Chuck Bruno. I have always called him by 'bestest friend' in the whole world, even though he was my boss. Finally, I want to make special note of Tony DiMare. I have so much respect for him and appreciate his friendship and all the years of working with him."

From the industry
The Produce News had the opportunity to speak to some of Westfall's friends and colleagues about her upcoming honor.

Faye and Chuck Bruno at the DiMare company booth at Southern Expo-sure 2011.
Faye and Chuck Bruno at the DiMare company booth
at Southern Exposure 2011.

Tom Page, retired for many years from Supervalu, said that he "first noticed Faye as she was on almost all of the committees, and later on she chaired many of those committees." He said that her "best qualities personally are the same ones that drive her efforts professionally: she's very detailed, watches all of the p's and q's, and her follow-through is excellent."

Page originally became friends with Westfall through their friendship with Terry Vorhees. "Terry was my best friend, and Terry had brought Faye onto the council," he recalled. "I am still amazed today that she is so active with the council. She's working well with our charities," and although she is "not in charge of STEP-UPP, she will not turn loose of it. The Southeast Produce Council has become her baby. And I love her for it."

Tony DiMare, president of DiMare Homestead and DiMare Fresh, said that Westfall has an "infectious personality, is extremely loyal, dedicated and hard working. When she worked for our company (DiMare Fresh Tampa), she would travel the state weekly visiting customers, doing retail and restaurant store checks. She was an awesome company representative and tremendous asset with customer relations."

He has known Westfall for more than 30 years. "We still remain friends, communicating periodically," he said. "She will send me emails from time to time, checking up on me or sending me an email about the Florida Gators, her beloved team. I am a Miami Hurricane fan, so we always jabbed at each other when they played."

Chuck Bruno, vice president and general manager of DiMare Fresh Inc., said, "She is excellent at engaging people, getting people involved in whatever is happening. She is never afraid. She is ready to jump in with both feet to help and to get involved."

He cited "faith, family and friendships" as her best qualities, adding, "She is always polite and positive."

Noting that he has known Westfall for more than 40 years, Bruno said, "We started at the first SEPC show in Lakeland, FL. After that she was on a mission to have a booth at each show that was part of the main theme."

Faye with Raina Nelson at the STARS & STEP-UPP at Southern Expo-sure 2018.
Faye with Raina Nelson at the STARS & STEP-UPP at
Southern Exposure 2018.

Rick Estess, business development manager Southeast at RPE, recalled meeting Westfall for the first time. "I remember Terry Vorhees introducing me to Faye 20-plus years ago when we were holding our SEPC meeting that fall at Brasstown Valley Resort. She was a new member and wanted to get involved with the council."

STEP-UPP was "one of the first leadership programs offered by SEPC," he said. "The day I presented this concept to the board of directors, Faye was the very first person to volunteer to help get this program up and running. From the beginning, she believed in the value of this program."

Starting with the first class, "Faye has always been there," said Estess. "She calls the STEP-UPP students her extended family, and like a mama, she is there to guide and praise them for their accomplishments. She challenges each student to give 100 percent and to give back to SEPC when they can."

As to her best qualities, Estess stated, "Faye and I are very much alike. She has no problem voicing her opinion and backing it up with the work to make it happen. With her leadership, STEP-UPP is what it is today."

He added, "Faye has always set a very high standard of excellence for herself as a leader, and has always led by example. Her passion for her family, her faith and the SEPC is well documented."

Faye with Barbara Sayles of the Society of St. Andrew, one of the many charities supported by the SEPC.
Faye with Barbara Sayles of the Society of St. Andrew, one of the
many charities supported by the SEPC.

He concluded, "I have always admired Faye for her willingness to give of her time, resources and talents to better the SEPC. She is an inspiration to all who have been blessed to know and work with her. With the passing of Terry, the council was in uncharted waters. Faye was one of many that stepped up and rallied around David with her support and prayers for him as he transitioned to his new leadership role."

Mike Roberts and Gary Baker are both graduates of STEP-UPP, Roberts in the class of 2012, Baker in the class of 2013. They currently co-chair that program, and thus work very closely with Westfall.

Roberts, who is vice president of produce operations at Harps Food Stores and who currently serves as chairman of the SEPC board of directors, met Westfall around 2010, "but I feel like I have known her all my life," he said. "She was a big impact on me from the start."

He said that thanks to Westfall's long involvement with STEP-UPP, "This program has turned into one of the leading if not the best produce educational program in the produce industry. You could say that Faye's commitment to the SEPC from the very beginning is her most important accomplishment. The SEPC would not be the same without Faye and many others making it what it is today."

He continued, "Professionally, she was a leader for women in the industry back when there were not as many as there are today. She paved the road for many influential women leaders in our industry today. She had to be thick-skinned from what she has told me to accomplish this. Personally, her best quality is friendship and caring. She has been a great friend to me, and I know how much she cares about everyone in her life and all of her past STEP-UPP kids, as she calls them."

The SEPC board of directors at Southern Exposure 2012.
The SEPC board of directors at Southern Exposure 2012.

Roberts said he's learned a lot from Westfall. "Faye has taught me the importance of relationships and what they mean to our industry and how to teach that to the next generation of leaders. She has influenced me in how to give back to not only our industry but to our faith and the important people in our lives. She is a true inspiration, and she has changed my life for the better."

He concluded, "On the path of our lives, certain individuals emerge as guiding lights that shape the trajectory of our careers. Being in the second STEP-UPP class, Faye's leadership changed my career. I learned tons of things about the industry, but her passion for the industry and the SEPC taught me there was more than just my job out there. Through her dedication, work ethic and passion for excellence, Faye demonstrates the qualities essential for success. Witnessing her commitment firsthand has inspired me to strive for nothing short of excellence in my own endeavors. I feel the need to give back the more I am around Faye, and for that, I cannot thank her enough."

Baker, who is senior director of fresh at Merchants Distributors LLC and who currently serves as treasurer of the SEPC board of directors, also pointed first to Westfall's role in STEP-UPP.

"Under her guidance, STEP-UPP has successfully developed comprehensive training and education initiatives. Personally I have experienced substantial benefits from the program, and it is noteworthy that over 140 students have similarly gained valuable insights through their participation in the program. Faye's dedication to enhancing educational opportunities with the Southeast Produce Council has been instrumental in fostering professional growth and development for both individuals and the produce industry."

The SEPC board of directors at Southern Innovations 2015.
The SEPC board of directors at Southern Innovations 2015.

He continued, "Faye's exceptional qualities shine through in her adeptness at approaching situations from various perspectives, drawing upon her extensive professional experiences across diverse fields. All these careers show that she has a distinct gift when dealing with people." Professionally, "I also enjoy how Faye always never fails to dress to impress," he said. "I love that she always has her own unique flair when it comes to attire." Personally, "I appreciate her warmth and the consistent ability to bring a smile to my face."

Baker said that during his years working alongside Westfall, "I have gained invaluable insights into SEPC and the genuine commitment required to serve our members effectively. I have learned the invaluable lesson while working with Faye on how to adapt to multiple personalities when it comes to SEPC students and train the students to their specific needs. Faye's influence has been particularly impactful, inspiring within me a desire to actively contribute to the council. Her guidance has cultivated in me a passion for participating in the council's initiatives and mentoring within the STEP-UPP program."

He concluded, "Faye Westfall's commitment to SEPC and its members is evidenced by her years of dedicated and selfless service. We all should aspire to the ideals that Faye has put forth. Faye is the true essence of what we and I aim for as members of the SEPC family. Dear mom, as I so affectionately call you! You truly are dear to my heart as a mother would be, and I am so proud of you for receiving the Terry Vorhees Lifetime Achievement award, which is so rightly deserved."

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