Locally grown produce tops the recently published National Restaurant Association 2009 Restaurant Industry Forecast list of the top 20 hot food trends this year.

It is a trend that has been growing steadily among farmers markets and retail stores across the country the past few years, and now the movement appears to be catching on in the restaurant and foodservice sectors as well.

“Local restaurants have jumped into it,” said Al Murray, assistant secretary of agriculture for New Jersey, which has been a strong state for years in locally-grown farmers markets. “Growers will bring two trucks in, one for the farmers market and the other for a restaurant.

“We’ve also had farmers speak at restaurants’ meet-your-farmers nights.”

In 1999, Texas started the Go Texan Restaurant Program, whereby restaurant owners go out themselves and buy produce and other food items from local growers.

“We have 400-500 restaurants signed up, utilizing local crops and livestock,” said Bryan Black, assistant commissioner for the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Denise Donohue, executive director of the DeWitt-based Michigan Apple Committee, used the recent National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Show in May in Chicago to reach out to local customers just across Lake Michigan.

“We’ve been getting very good feedback,” Donohue said. “It seems the foodservice business has been getting more and more interested in local.”

Donohue said suppliers are beginning to dedicate stock-keeping units to local product. She also said her committee has been working with Michigan State University to research how consumers react to locally grown labels on bags of apples at retail.

And it was recently reported that a Bay-area startup company called FarmsReach had launched a service online that makes it easier and cheaper for restaurants to buy food from small, local farms by creating a digital food marketplace.

That could eventually cause a seismic shift in the industry by effectively eliminating the need for a middleman or wholesaler, creating a transition that’s already occurred in the travel industry and dozens of others.

Todd DeWaard, sales manager for Superior Sales Inc., Hudsonville, Mich., said he has seen an increase in the number of his foodservice accounts that request locally grown product, as well as more requests for extra information on local growers.

“They want us to get pamphlets with the farm story so the chefs can say, ‘Farmer Mike grew my peppers,’” DeWaard said.

Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill recently expanded its local produce program, announcing it will purchase at least 35% of at least one bulk item in all of its restaurants locally from a network of 25 farmers in its distribution network when seasonally available.

Staff writer Ashley Bentley contributed to this story.