TAMPA, Fla. Distributing produce in close proximity to the biggest U.S. winter growing region helps provide Florida wholesalers a local distribution advantage.

"We like to promote local," said Robert Ondrus, director of category management for produce for U.S. Foodservice Inc., Rosemont, Ill. "With everything being so close down here, we have some chains that require and request we run local promotions, like Florida strawberries. They"re doing local and are trying to help economies out. We"re seeing a bigger interest in this."

U.S. Foodservice works closely with local growers, helping them meet food safety certification. The foodservice purveyor organizes meetings with growers and buyers to familiarize both ends of the chain with the procedures for increasing produce distribution.

The local angle doesn"t always work so well, however, said James Killebrew, vice president of Baird Produce Inc.

"We sell Florida product, and Plant City and Hillsborough County make for a huge agricultural area," he said. "But we don"t do a lot with some of the local farmers. A lot of the local farmers have gotten good enough to sell it themselves, especially with the strawberries, the main thing grown in this area. They are getting so big so most handle it themselves."

Louis Garcia III, salesman and buyer for Crews &amp Garcia Inc., said local isn"t as big a push.

"People do try to push locally grown products to the chain stores," Garcia said. "We"re hearing a little about it, but not a whole lot. I don"t think they have guidelines for how close local has to be, but as you see so much product from other countries, pretty much anything in the U.S. might be considered locally grown anymore."

Jack T. Scalisi Wholesale Produce Distributors, West Palm Beach, sees more interest in herbs, microsprouts, greens and locally grown vegetables, said Jack Scalisi, president.

"There"s a lot of demand for the delicate items, the small stuff," he said. "It requires a lot of special handling and special pickups for packages that many other distributors may not be interested in."

Tomato buyers also want locally grown, said Chuck Bruno, vice president and general manager of DiMare Fresh-Tampa Inc., Riverview.

DiMare Fresh markets locally grown during Florida"s October to June tomato season and during the summer and promotes Southeast tomatoes as locally grown in its trade areas of Georgia and Alabama.

"Some of our buyers can"t wait until you get started," Bruno said. "They want you to switch to that. They have a customer base asking for it. Local grown is a good thing to promote."

Local is also an important concern for those that buy specialties.

Justin Warren, general manager of Coosemans Tampa Inc., said Florida distributors take advantage of the many locally grown specialties, such as kumquats from Dade City, north of Tampa, and a variety of specialties such as starfruit, passion fruit, yucca and malanga grown in the Redlands growing region at Homestead, south of Miami.

"Among my customer base, the big question a lot of the time lately is if buyers can get the products grown in Florida," Warren said. "There are some initiatives where people want to have that on their menus or put a sign beside it on their display shelf saying this is from Florida."

Warren called specialty demand steady. While Coosemans focuses on specialty produce, it distributes other produce, such as carrots and lettuce, among its herbs and exotic fruit such as kiwano and pepino melons and tricolored and gourmet carrots.

Marshall Glantz, president of exports, cruise ships and business development and executive director for American Fruit &amp Produce Corp., Opa Locka, said distributors take advantage of Florida"s fall, winter and spring abundance.

"It"s all local, everywhere in the state," he said. "Whether it"s citrus or vegetables. You name the product that grows here, and we"re sourcing it. A lot of customers recognize and value the local Florida product."