Ohio produce distributors agree restaurants have had a tough time in the past few years, but a number of wholesalers who deal heavily in the foodservice sector say there are numerous factors fueling a comeback.

Institutions may be leading the way, said Mark Mithalski, a buyer with Ravenna, Ohio-based Sirna & Sons Produce.

“It’s all to the good health, and schools and hospitals are pushing the apples and bananas and celery and carrots and things like that,” he said.

A national push against obesity has helped fuel produce sales, he said.

Ohio has an adult obesity rate of 30%, according to a study released Sept. 18 by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, two organizations that regularly report on obesity in order to raise awareness.

Efforts like that are beneficial to produce sales, said Tony DiNovo, president of Columbus, Ohio-based wholesaler DNO Inc.

“That whole health thing with healthy eating in general has been a godsend for us, really,” DiNovo said.

DiNovo does business with schools in Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia, he said.

“That’s been a real boon to our business,” he said, adding that the company supplies not just schools, but also other wholesalers who have their own school customer networks.

Sirna & Sons has been asked to supply produce to schools, vice president Vince Sirna said.

“We’ve noticed there’s a much stronger commitment by the schools and colleges, as they want much healthier, fresher (foods),” he said.

Success in foodservice almost dictates an effort to supply schools, said Rick Schimpf, chief financial officer with Cincinnati-based Gentile Bros. Co.

It has become a bigger part of Sirna’s business, Sirna said.

“Even some of the bigger companies are pushing for their help and people that visit to be healthy,” he said.

School business is brisk at ProduceOne in Dayton, Ohio, said Erv Pavlofsky, partner in the company.

That includes Ohio State University and its nearly 60,000 students.

Ben Roth, who recently merged his Columbus-based wholesale operation, Roth Produce Co., with Pavlofsky’s to create Roth ProduceOne, said schools are central to a successful foodservice business plan.

“In Columbus we’re very fortunate since we have a lot of education, the university, a lot of research, the hospitals and a lot of insurance companies,” he said.

The restaurant sector seems to rely more heavily now than before on fresh produce, said Jarrod Clabaugh, director of communications with the Columbus-based Ohio Restaurant Association.

“I think that more restaurants are placing a larger focus on produce today than they have in the past years,” he said.

Economics play into that scenario, he said.

“As commodity prices are driving up the cost of the center-of-the-plate items, produce has truly become more of a focus,” he said.

Nutrition is a major focus in foodservice, said Bill Schuler, president and chief executive officer of the Wilder, Ky.-based Castellini Group, one of the largest produce distributors in the region.

“I think it’s the same trend you see nationally, and that’s the focus on eating healthier,” he said, citing increased volumes of produce choices in schools, as well as restaurants.