Apple growers, shippers and marketers say they have been busy keeping fruit on menus, even as restaurants continue to deal with tough economic times, and schools try to add nutritional heft to their offerings.

There is business to be had. The National Restaurant Association estimated daily sales in the foodservice business at $1.6 billion per day in 2010. Among restaurant patrons, 73% of adults said they try to eat healthier when they dine out than they did two years earlier, according to the association.

The apple industry has been finding inroads into the foodservice sector, marketers say.

Efforts are under way industrywide to court business from private and public institutions, said Todd Hultquist, director of communications and membership with the U.S. Apple Association in Vienna, Va.

“It’s a matter of participating in events where chefs and major foodservice leaders attend and helping to inspire them to use apples in restaurant recipes,” Hultquist said. “On the institutional side, we’ve been active in encouraging the USDA to expand its purchases of fresh, as well as apple products.”

There have been gains in that area, he said, citing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $86 million purchase of apple and apple products in 2010, which broke the previous record of $65 million from 2009.

That could increase in the future, Hultquist said.

“The childhood obesity problem is a priority,” he said. “The focus is on purchasing more fruits and vegetables, but it benefits apples.”

The Lansing-based Michigan Apple Committee, for example, has efforts going in several directions, said Holly Whetstone, marketing and communications specialist.

“We continue to make real big strides with foodservice companies based in Michigan,” Whetstone said. “Over the last five years, we’ve really worked with them to expand their selection of Michigan apples and increase the varieties they’re offering.”

One arena in which the committee has found success has been colleges and universities, she added.

“At Michigan State University, in particular, we found out a few years back that they had very few Michigan apples in their cafeterias,” she said. “Our board made it one of their top missions to work with Michigan State and increase their selection of Michigan apples.”

MSU and other institutions were ready recipients of homegrown apples, Whetstone said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s colleges, universities or schools — they’re all wanting locally grown apples that in turn kind of helped to increase the selection foodservice suppliers were carrying,” she said.

The Michigan Apple Committee also supplies more than 400 hotel facilities with bushel baskets of apples, Whetstone added.

“When they go to place their reorders, they make sure their reorders are for Michigan-grown apples,” she said.

Demand for local apples isn’t just a Michigan phenomenon. It’s happening in New York, as well, said Jim Allen, president of the Fishers-based New York Apple Association.

“The homegrown trend has trickled into foodservice very strongly,” he said. “Their customers are requiring homegrown. Aramark, which supplies the universities, is asking for homegrown. The younger generation is more in tune with carbon footprints and things like that, and they have to react to that customer.”

Foodservice customers are varying their purchases, as well, said Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash.

“Many have embraced the new varieties and seen their apples sales increase,” she said. “Additionally, we are seeing increased sales as a result of the government’s increased funding assistance to increase the availability of fruit in schools and on the menus. School demand is excellent for apples.”

Allen said New York apple growers and shippers have benefited from school feeding programs.

“We do very well — it all plays into the federal programs advocating homegrown,” he said. “All these programs are communicating homegrown to their customers.”

Suppliers try to accommodate foodservice customers who may be particular about fruit size and grade issues, said Kevin Steiner, marketing director for Yakima, Wash.-based Sage Fruit Co. LLC.

“The whole deal completely hinges on the size of fruit we have,” he said. “If we have smaller-sized apples, we’ll definitely offer those out. That’s what they’re going for.”

Some shippers find an outlet by supplying fruit to slicing operations who deal directly with foodservice clients.

“That’s one of the areas we’re always looking to increase consumption,” said Alan Taylor, marketing manager for Yakima-based Pink Lady America LLC. “In the foodservice part, we’re most often working with the sliced area. That’s very, very good, because this apples have the quality characteristics they’re looking for in that it slices very well on the equipment that’s used.”

Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos., which has an office in Union Gap, Wash., works with an array of foodservice customers, said Keith Horder, director of business development.

“I think we’re seeing a lot more consistent availability through foodservice sources,” he said. “Their growth alone has helped us get more apples into facilities, whether it’s restaurants, schools, hospitals or other institutions.”