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INDUSTRY VIEWPOINT: Pack Career Pathways Scholarship speaks to next generation of produce leaders

How did you begin your career in produce?

Your story might be a heartwarming one of family-owned produce stands, or even the occasional "dumb luck" story.

Not so for me, as my choice of a career in produce was a deliberate, calculated move spurred by the Produce Marketing Association's Foundation for Industry Talent outreach to me as a college student. And it is a choice that I hope many more young professionals will make in the years to come, with the industry's help.

But let's start at the beginning. My produce industry career really began as a result of the PMA FIT's Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways scholarship, which allowed me to experience the 2007 PMA Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition in Houston.

This scholarship program, funded by Jay and Ruthie Pack, brings top agriculture and food marketing students and faculty to Fresh Summit. It is designed to provide information, education and relationship-building opportunities that showcase the opportunities and rewards of produce industry careers.

When I arrived at Fresh Summit, I had already interned for nearly six months at Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., where I learned the operations from the ground up and spent time in production, shipping and receiving. It was during my time at Procacci that I gained an appreciation for how our industry functions.

Any seasoned industry member knows firsthand the professional and personal charge you get from attending Fresh Summit. Now imagine the rush for someone like myself who was about to graduate college and who was being immersed in the produce industry culture. Hearing the excitement that Jay and Ruthie Pack personally have for the industry and its future, walking the show floor, being able to put people's faces behind the products, feeling the passion of the industry, and seeing the national and international reach of the industry - I knew produce was where I wanted to be.

I don't come from a line of food-industry professionals, nor did I previously work in any kind of family food business, much less in produce. I was first exposed to the food industry through the Food Marketing Cooperative Program at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

However, even within that program, students' exposure to the produce industry is limited. I was fortunate enough to have a college mentor -- food broker Ed Rogers -- pass my r?sum? to Procacci Bros. and encourage me to pursue an internship with the company. After experiencing the Procacci internship and then Fresh Summit, I turned down jobs at companies like Johnson & Johnson, Coke and General Mills because I was attracted to what the produce industry had to offer.

Yet I would never have known about the industry had it not been for my introduction to Procacci and PMA FIT. My friends who attended other universities have been turned on to the produce industry only because I share my positive experiences. Where at first they were quick to joke about my working in the produce industry, now they're asking me to keep them posted on produce job openings.

The produce industry can benefit tremendously by aggressively reaching out to attract college students. That's why it is so important for our industry to support PMA FIT. Its programs inform talented soon-to-be-graduates about the exciting opportunities the produce industry offers, and about the promise for long-term professional growth that produce career paths hold. These young professionals are ready to make a difference in the sustainability of produce companies amidst a global, rapidly changing and highly technological marketplace.

Once I returned from Fresh Summit, I made it a point to share my experience with my professors. Another mentor, Nancy Childs, made the trip to Fresh Summit 2008 in Orlando, FL, to see what all of the hype was about. When I ran into her afterward, I was pleased to hear that she had decided to dedicate three classes each semester to discussing the opportunity and depth that the produce industry offers. This industry needs more voices like Jay and Ruthie Pack, and Ed Rogers and Dr. Childs.

In 2003, the Pack family already understood the need to attract young talent to the industry and worked with PMA to establish the Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways scholarship - at a time before talk of the coming professional talent crunch carried the buzz that it does today. Five years later, the successful scholarship program has hosted 177 students; 38 of the 74 scholarship recipients who have graduated are now employed with produce-related companies. That's an attraction rate of over 50 percent.

Join the Packs and other PMA FIT supporters by participating in career programs, hosting student tours and mentoring at produce industry events like Fresh Summit. In the meantime, I'll keep working with PMA FIT to tell other students my story and to encourage them to look closer at the possibilities that exist within the produce industry.

(Kevin Delaney is special projects manager for Procacci Bros. Sales Corp. in Philadelphia. He can be reached via e-mail at