TORONTO — In the past three years, Ontario government grants have put bushels of local food on the menus of institutions such as universities, hospitals and conference centers.

“Increasing the amount of local food in the broader public sector is the solution to growing the local food economy,” said Franco Naccarato, program manager of the Greenbelt Fund, which administers the funds.

“Since we launched the grants in 2010, our 38 projects have led to an increase of almost $12 million in Ontario food sales,” Naccarato said. “That means for every dollar we invested in grants, we saw a $3 return in local food purchases.”

The fund recently has divided up $100,000 among eight institutions across the province, including three in Toronto, to create more local menu items and source new suppliers.

One of last year’s grant recipients, broadliner Gordon Foodservice Ontario, has added more than 800 local products to its list and reported a 10% sales boost in one year, Naccarato said.

Steve Crawford, category lead for dairy, produce and local, said the broadliner has also helped growers adopt the food safety and traceability practices needed to work with large foodservice companies.

“Growers don’t find it as hard as they thought it would be,” Crawford said, “and some vendors are buying into it. We even have a lasagna now made completely with local ingredients.”

Everyone’s still searching for a local salad blend to replace imported spring mix, he said, but Ontario greenhouses are starting to get more creative with their varieties.

“Similar to our dessert tray, we’d like to see servers offering a tray of salads to customers beyond house and Caesar,” he said.

The Metro Toronto Convention Centre, which spends close to $4 million a year on food to feed a million conference-goers, used its Greenbelt grant to hire chef and caterer Kelly Hughes as its local food procurement officer.

The key to success has been lots of communication with growers and event planners, she said.

“If the client has a convention in February and says they want an heirloom tomato salad, we have to say that’s not going to happen, but we can give you a wonderful kale and celery root salad,” she said.

The convention center books events so far in advance, Hughes can even ask a producer to grow a field of lettuce or other vegetables for a specific conference.

“It changes the model,” she said. “When you order food for a large institution, it’s usually sitting in a warehouse, waiting for your order.

“Local food, however, is sitting in a field, or it hasn’t been planted yet. You have to be a little more proactive and very communicative. If our expectations are realistic, we have no problem getting what we need.”