TORONTO — The growing demand for value-added and local produce in Toronto restaurants and institutions is a challenge for even the country’s largest foodservice distributors.

To help meet the demand for fresh-cut produce, Sysco Canada bought processor Martha’s Garden, which has served the Toronto area since 1989.

By June, the company expects to be operating out of a new 120,000-square-foot facility just north of Toronto in Vaughan, under the name Sysco Fresh Cuts of Toronto, said Dan Martin, Sysco’s director of produce for eastern Canada.

“Of the 110,000 square feet we’ve invested in processing, 60,000 will be produce and 50,000 will be meat,” Martin said. “The remaining 10,000 square feet will be used for office space.”

The new facility will supply eastern Canada and complement Sysco’s processing facility in Vancouver.

The processing arm “gives us an opportunity to do more business and do it more efficiently and consistently right across the country,” Martin said. “If our chain customers want specific blends, we’ll be able to do it for them and offer next-day delivery.”

Chopped romaine remains a popular item, he said, and makes more sense than hauling a 38-pound case across North America, knowing most of it will go to waste.

The new facility will also allow Sysco to consolidate for its operating companies, he said, and hopefully allow it to bring in more local product, because the grower would have to make only one stop.

“Local has really gained momentum in the past 18 months and it’s one of our biggest initiatives this year,” Martin said.

On average, he said, 35% of Sysco’s weekly cases are locally grown, and at the peak of the season it’s closer to 45%.

“We want to get to the point where we can tell our customers and chefs what farm the produce comes from, which we’re seeing on more and more menus,” he said.

Among the local products Sysco works with directly are mushrooms, roots and greenhouse vegetables.

Defining local, however, has been a challenge. While produce grown anywhere in Ontario is considered local in the province’s restaurants, Martin said he also considers potatoes from Canada’s east coast as local at certain times of the year.

“For me, the program has meant getting to know local growers better and trying to get more involved with them,” Martin said. “We’ve talked with the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and Loblaws as a group to see how we get more local products on our customers’ tables.”

In a related move, Martin said Sysco aims to have 95% of its Canadian suppliers certified for good agricultural practices by the end of the year, and undergo annual or semi-annual audits.