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A Generous Heart: Remembering Marianne Santo

A Generous Heart: Remembering Marianne Santo

Purpose is contagious. People are drawn to it, infused with it, and led by it.

To say that Marianne Santo was a person of great influence is both an understatement and the perfect way to understand her, to grasp the impact her incredible heart had on those she met and knew. The phrase is an understatement because Marianne did not just touch lives, she was oxygen for them, a home lit by unconditional love and light. It also perfectly defines Marianne as well, because her impact was staggering, passionate, and personal—infinite and immortal.

Marianne will be in our hearts, memories, and actions forever.

“Marianne dedicated her life to produce. She didn’t plan it, but once she became involved in the industry she put forth her commitment to the industry which became her passion. Marianne worked tirelessly in her quest for knowledge of
the industry and to promote it with vigor. She most revealed her dedication with a passion toward promoting other women in the industry and would act as a mentor to so many throughout her life,” Carmine Santo, Marianne's husband, shared.

Ever since I met Marianne back in 2017, working with her on a Mentors in the Making story for The Snack, I have been deeply affected by her deep purpose to uplift and inspire others and help those in need. During the short years we knew each other, I was under the impression that this purpose of hers was not something she consciously chose, but an innate part of who she was.

Many mornings I would wake to a message from her, sharing words of wisdom and encouragement she found on Instagram or pulled from her own experiences, or a note of gratitude for something that was written on our pages.

Marianne shared many of these reflections with me in a story she graciously allowed me to write about her personal experiences and about her passion to help others succeed and grow.

After a career spent learning the produce business at Wakefern Food Corp., she found herself in a position to be a teacher as a Senior Category Manager and one of the first female Category Managers at Wakefern, before becoming the first woman President in the history of the Eastern Produce Council (EPC).

“I try to honor those who had the patience and generosity to mentor me by paying it forward. Of equal value is what my fellow employees teach me—my relationships with them are based on the sharing of all our individual skills. I am motivated in life by feeling blessed to do what I love for as long as I have, and being married to someone who has always supported my career and the very demanding hours that this business requires,” she told me.

“Marianne worked tirelessly in her quest for knowledge of the industry and to promote it with vigor. She most revealed her dedication with a passion toward promoting other women in the industry and would act as a mentor to so many throughout her life.”

Carmine Santo, Chief of Staff, APL Logistics Ltd. and Husband of Marianne Santo

It seems strange to let these words settle on the page in the present tense. But, it feels right—a way to honor the echo she will forever illuminate with those she touched.

“Marianne was the biggest cheerleader many of us have ever known. She guided and encouraged not only in her professional life, but in her personal life as well," Tina Santo, Marianne's sister-in-law, expressed. "She believed in us and made us believe in ourselves. I hope to pay that forward always.”

Echoing that beautiful way she cared for those in her personal life, Carmine shared that Marianne shined most with and when doing anything related to her nieces Tara, Emily, and Abby.

Marianne had, what she called, her Girl Gang—a circle of women and family that was an extension of her heart and influenced how she moved through the world. Carmine shared this with me as we spoke on a cold morning in January. It was Marianne's birthday. But, in the middle of such a conversation, I could not feel the chill. The love he had in his voice for her was that immortal kind. And in that moment, she was in that conversation with us both.

Marianne touched many, beginning when she first stepped into the produce division at New Jersey-based Wakefern more than 30 years ago. As one of the largest retailer-owned cooperatives in the U.S., Wakefern’s flagship supermarket brands, including ShopRite, Price Rite Marketplace, The Fresh Grocer, Dearborn Market, and Gourmet Garage, found a home in Marianne’s heart, as did the people who worked in them.

I remember Marianne laughing as she shared with me how she interviewed with Wakefern for a position in the Produce Store Services Department because she wanted to work for a company that valued a college degree—one that felt akin to my heart, as she had been an English Literature major at Douglass College.

“Within my first year, the Procurement Manager asked me if I would like to get involved with produce buying, and the rest is history,” she told me. “It didn’t dawn on me at the time that what I was being offered and pursuing was relatively uncharted territory for women on the buying side.”

“Marianne taught me, through her actions, love, and passion, what kind of mentor I want to be, and I was honored to call her my mentor.”

Alex Jackson, Vice President of Sales and Procurement, Frieda’s Branded Produce

Marianne added that, when she started attending the Eastern Produce Council meetings 30 years ago, she was one of maybe five women in attendance.

“I would never have imagined back then that we would at this point represent close to half the room and that I would become the first woman President in 52 years! It is a role I am very respectful of and humbled by. When other women in this business express their gratitude to me for doing this, it is all the motivation I need,” she said.

Often referred to as “The Watermelon Queen” among her peers, reflecting her strong love for the category, Marianne also managed and influenced every category in Wakefern’s produce program over her 38 years at the company.

During her time at Wakefern, she polished and paid forward her mastery of procurement systems, her ability to work through the complexities of warehouse buying and domestic and international sourcing, while mentoring those around her. Marianne shared these reflections with me back in 2020, and they are still as true today as they were then: “When I started, everything was done over the phone or by fax. Emails and texts didn’t exist. While those methods have streamlined communication, I believe that personal interaction is still a very vital part of this business. Retail has obviously undergone tremendous change with the advent of shopping from home, in-store pickup, and home delivery, as well as competition from club stores and online retailers. Our stores need to be all of those things while maintaining our history as family-owned businesses that value customer loyalty on a personal level.”

Marianne always kept her heart present in conversations, able to manage the demands of the work with her desire to elevate others and invest in philanthropic initiatives as well. Marianne found this balance in Wakefern’s year-round hunger-fighting initiative, the ShopRite Partners In Caring program, among many others she participated in over the years, including Dress for Success, the Food Bank, and God’s Love We Deliver. The industry veteran was also the 2017 TWIN winner of “Tribute to Women and Industry.”

Marianne leaves behind her beloved husband, Carmine, two loving sisters, Lisa Walsak and Eileen Kennedy, Eileen’s husband Richard, and adored nieces and nephews: Tara, the late Amanda, Emily, Jacob, Adam, and Abby. As an obituary read, it is important to mention her other sisters in Marie Moss, Kelly Davis, and Tina Santo.

“Marianne’s impact on my life, both personal and professional, was profound. She took me under her wing and mentored, cheered, encouraged, and enriched my life.”

Jami Espinosa, Category Manager, Produce, Wakefern Food Corp.

The Eastern Produce Council is honoring Marianne, posthumously, at its Annual Gala on April 6, 2024. You can visit the EPC’s website at to learn more.

Somehow putting a period at the end of this text feels unnatural. But Marianne’s heart beats through all of us, in the memories and words shared by those she loved endlessly and with that beautiful magnitude of purpose.

Words about Marianne:

Gabriela D’Arrigo,

Vice President of Communications and Marketing, D’Arrigo New York

“Marianne Santo, or 'Mare' as some of us called her, was not only my mentor, but she was my dear friend. From the first moment we met at a women's conference years ago, we just clicked. This business can be really harsh and tough, and can run you through the gauntlet at times. Mare was one of those people I knew who had the innate ability to always see the positive. She was my first call whenever I felt like I was ready to give up and quit. She always knew the right thing to say and do in any situation and always handled herself brilliantly.

Over the years, Mare shared different experiences she has had in this industry, both good and bad, and I truly admired her for how she handled each and every situation. I would joke with her, 'You need to write a handbook for this' or 'Yeah, that would have been helpful before I did that.' In the end, we would always have a laugh about it, and she would keep my energy and spirit up. I still think of her all the time, especially when I'm faced with a difficult decision, whether it be at work or just in life. I miss being able to call my friend and ask for her opinion, guidance, or just to tell her a funny story and listen to her infectious laugh. Her impact on not just me, but others in this industry will live on and be passed down. I know she would be thrilled to know that. Who knows, maybe someday I'll write her handbook for her.”

Jami Espinosa,

Category Manager, Produce, Wakefern Food Corp.

“Sometimes, there’s a person at your job who becomes so influential that the lines get blurred between colleague and friend. For me, that person was Marianne Santo. Our friendship and work relationship even defied location. I’m based in Florida, where I spend a lot of time in fields and farms sourcing produce for Wakefern, and Marianne was based out of our offices in New Jersey. Despite the distance, Marianne’s impact on my life, both personal and professional, was profound. She took me under her wing and mentored, cheered, encouraged, and enriched my life. I don’t think that a single day went by without some form of communication between us, whether it was a phone conversation, email, or a text from Marianne to check in—sometimes even a silly GIF to make me smile. I’ve come to realize that she was that person for a remarkable number of people within the industry. It has been bittersweet to hear from so many whose lives were impacted by Marianne. She believed in me and taught me so much about the produce business. She would laugh at my elaborate Excel spreadsheets and tell me to, ‘Just go with your gut.’ I’m still working on that and will keep her voice in my head and heart as I remind myself to always go with my gut.”

Alex Jackson,

Vice President of Sales and Procurement, Frieda’s Branded Produce

“Marianne taught me, through her actions, love, and passion, what kind of mentor I want to be, and I was honored to call her my mentor. She was fun, passionate, unabashedly herself, and not afraid to say what everyone else was thinking. I knew I needed mentors who were different from me and brought out the best parts of me. Who made me feel confident to be myself and work through imposter syndrome. Marianne was the best at that.

When The Snack featured me for Mentors in the Making, Marianne called me a force of nature, complimenting my poise, energy, and sales expertise. She recognized my hard work, perseverance, and understanding of customers’ needs. But, what meant the most to me was when she said I inspired her to reach higher and do better professionally and personally. I will never take for granted all the times Marianne reminded me how naming her as my mentor for that article was a turning point for her in how she viewed herself and the role she played for other women in our industry. Marianne didn’t see herself as others saw her, but I know that, since her passing, Marianne is finally believing everything we’ve told her about how inspiring she has been to everyone she met.”

Karen Caplan,

Advisor, former Chief Executive Officer and President, Frieda’s Branded Produce

“I first met Marianne more than 30 years ago, when she was promoted to become a Wakefern produce buyer. Needless to say, she was the only female produce buyer I knew, and we naturally developed a friendship. But, it was in the last 10 years that we became super close; she turned to me for advice on accepting a bigger leadership role in the Eastern Produce Council, I enjoyed being her cheerleader and one of her biggest supporters, and, in turn, she joyfully took on the assignment of being my daughter, Alex Jackson’s, mentor when Alex joined our sales team more than eight years ago. Both Alex and I were honored to give the eulogy at Marianne’s funeral and we miss her greatly.”

Jackie Caplan Wiggins,

Former Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, Frieda’s Branded Produce

“I first ‘met’ Marianne in the late 1980s. Our communication occurred over the phone, as in-person interactions—aside from annual conventions—were rare. At the time, I was on the sales desk at Frieda’s and Marianne was my buyer at Wakefern. To say that she was a tough buyer is an understatement. Frankly, she was a badass and I was kind of afraid to speak with her. However, in 1991, I saw a different side of Marianne—one that was sweet and caring. This happened when I gave birth to my son, Frankie. Marianne sent him a Purple Vermont Teddy Bear to welcome him into this world. The last time I saw Marianne was several years ago at the Washington Conference hosted by United Fresh. It was her first time attending, and we shared a dinner, during which she expressed her excitement about engaging in advocacy. It was a delightful evening. Marianne, I miss you, and I will forever treasure those special moments.”

Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk,

Chief Executive Officer, Greenyard USA/Seald Sweet

“I met Marianne for the first time in her office. She was the most knowledgeable, stern, and intimidating buyer I had ever met. I soon found out that if Marianne did not know you or you had the misfortune of her not liking you, it was game over. Time and effort provided me the opportunity to know her and I thank the stars above that we became friends. We always would joke about that day, how I told her she made grown men cry. As years went by and we traveled for work and I got to know her better, I quickly learned about Marriane’s fierce heart and unwavering loyalty. She loved her family deeply and unconditionally. If you were fortunate enough to be part of her chosen family circle, consider yourself winning life’s lottery. During my most difficult times, Marianne literally picked me up from the floor and held me. I have no words to express the loss that this world will have without her in it. I just know that my world will never be the same without her in it.

As we navigate the future, let’s make sure that her legacy lives on, not just in our hearts but in the positive impact we bring to the world around us. Let’s honor her memory by carrying forward the strength, loyalty, and genuine care
she shared.”

Susan McAleavey Sarlund,

Executive Director, Eastern Produce Council

“As Executive Director of the Eastern Produce Council, I had the great pleasure of working alongside Marianne as our President for the past six years. She was a prized mentor and a caring friend. One of the people Marianne was introduced to on the council and the EPC Board was my father, John McAleavey, who served as the council's Executive Director for 25 years prior to his passing in 2015. I always remember him saying what a great addition she was to the board and how capable she was! Like all of us, he would be so proud of how she developed and, ultimately, became the first female leader of our organization. Marianne was passionate about the produce world, committed to developing its future leaders, and truly treasured and respected the importance and value of relationships. This outlook connected us while working together at the EPC. Marianne will forever be in my heart and will continue to guide me in my role.”

Kelly Davis,

Formerly with Wakefern and Allegiance Retail Services

“My great friend Marianne was probably one of the most awe-inspiring women I have ever known. She inspired, championed, and wholly supported me (and countless others—both men and women) in the produce industry. Marianne will always be remembered as a passionate spokesperson for the produce industry and strove to develop and improve industry standards.

Her family was especially dear to her, and the pride she had for them was evident whenever she spoke of them or shared their stories. My friend had a huge heart and the sharpest mind ever to be bestowed upon a human being. My favorite memories will always be of her and me traversing this globe for the produce industry we loved, and meeting/networking with some of the greatest men and women in our profession. I say with great admiration that Marianne was a global force and will be remembered as such!”