TORONTO — Local Food Plus started as a dream to identify locally grown and sustainable food for Ontario consumers.

Now it’s a proud symbol that appears on more and more packages. It even hangs from flags outside the company’s biggest supporter, Toronto independent supermarket Fiesta Farms.

The nonprofit association’s vice president, beef farmer Don Mills, said organizers began with a “bundle” of values they believe consumers are looking for in their food, including sustainability in terms of energy use and biodiversity on the farm, and protocols such as lessening pesticide use, animal welfare and good labor standards.

In 2006, the group approached the University of Toronto with the idea for a contract — the company would approve and provide a list of approved local farmers, and the university would agree to buy a certain percentage of produce and meat from them.

In 2008, Fiesta Farms, a 30,000-square-foot independent supermarket that has made its name selling local and organic fare, signed a pledge to use the products of at least eight to 10 certified farms.

“We’re not brokers,” Mills said. “We certify the food and farmers do the deal with distributors. Our job is to grow demand for our certification mark. It’s been a slow build.”

This winter, the company is working with Toronto culinary stars such as chef Jamie Kennedy, Mark Cutrara of Cowbell and Lynn Crawford of Ruby Watchco, who have all signed a pledge to use Local Food Plus-certified food. Staff working for the town of Markham also have signed on.

Certification, which costs each participating farm $199 a year, does not set out to reinvent the wheel if growers already meet the standards of groups such as the Canadian Horticultural Council, Mills said.

The company now has about 180 farms certified across Canada, from chicken to stone fruit, he said. It’s currently looking for locally minded partners in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia, while raising money through foundations and private supporters.

“Some farms and small marketers are doing exciting things,” he said. “It brings optimism back into what seems like a race to the bottom in terms of trying to squeeze every penny out of the system.”