TORONTO — Fresh Ontario produce from growers large and small is finding its way into major institutions and into the coolers of giants like Sysco Canada and Gordon Foodservice Ontario, Milton, with help from the Greenbelt Fund.

“Since 2011, we’ve distributed 78 grants worth $7.4 million,” said Franco Naccarato, program manager for the provincially funded nonprofit organization,” Naccarato said.

“We’ve already seen a return of $15 million in increased Ontario food sales, and our goal is to triple that by the end of the project in March 2015.”

The Greenbelt’s food hub project, which began in November, starts with an order from one of Aramark Canada’s foodservice clients, such as the University of Toronto. Distributor 100km Foods Inc. gives the order to a grower or growers, picks up the produce and takes it to Sysco, which delivers it to the university.

“Aramark was the perfect buyer because they want to make this work and we gave them a way to access local, sustainable products, which are difficult to find in larger quantities,” Naccarato said.

If successful in the Toronto area, Greenbelt plans to set up similar networks across the province.

Paul Sawtell, a founder and owner of Toronto-based 100km Foods Inc., whose business has been growing 40% annually, said the Greenbelt grant will allow him to double his fleet of trucks from four to eight this year.

Sawtell regularly services about 100 restaurants, hotels and small retailers, with another 100 occasional customers.

After working with Ontario growers for six years, he can access just about anything in season, from carrots and onions to fresh espelette and Trinidad scorpion peppers, northern kiwifruit, seabuckthorn berries and paw paw fruit.

His biggest seller in summer is hand-cut salad greens from The New Farm, Creemore, Ontario.

“Chefs say it’s the best salad they’ve ever worked with,” he said.

When Sawtell and his wife started 100km Foods Inc. 100km Foods Inc. six years ago, he said working with growers gave chefs a warm feeling.

“Today, they buy from us for freshness and quality, consistency and reliability,” he said.

To bring chefs and growers together, Sawtell invited all his customers to a meet-and-greet evening on Feb. 24.

“Farms that are really in tune with what the chefs are looking for have a leg up,” he said. “If you can back that up with quality and consistency, you’re going to take off. I’d love more farms that fit that profile.”

Sawtell advises a woman in New York City who wants to set up a similar service connecting chefs and producers.

Steve Crawford, business development specialist for produce, dairy and local for Gordon Food Service Ontario, said GFS’ newest Greenbelt grant involves comparing the amount of local versus imported fresh produce the broadliner uses and seeing how much of an opportunity there is to use more local fruits and vegetables.

“We want to know where the opportunities are,” Crawford said, “and we’re going to talk to some of our bigger vendors, such as the Campbell Soup Co., to see if they’ve thought of using more local products.”

Crawford also plans to attend the 2014 Food Hub Collaboration Conference, Raleigh, N.C. in late March.