Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture offers a rewards program to encourage restaurants to purchase Kentucky Proud items, including produce, said Adam Watson, produce marketing specialist.

Restaurants and schools can participate and receive rebates for qualifying purchases.

Because Kentucky has many small growers, the produce distribution system is not well organized, which can be a problem for attracting buyers. The rebate rewards chefs and foodservice buyers for making the effort to find local products.

“It goes back to the fact that we don’t have a midlevel aggregator,” Watson said. “It can be more of a hassle and logistical challenge (to source local produce).”

Once restaurants and institutions find local produce suppliers, though, they are happy with the variety and freshness, Watson said.

In 2009, the Kentucky Proud Restaurant Rewards Program paid nearly $84,000 in reimbursements. In 2010, it paid more than $117,000, and this year’s budget is for $125,000 in reimbursements, an amount Watson said would be exhausted before the end of the year.

The farm-gate values of Kentucky Proud products sold to foodservice and restaurant buyers in 2009 was nearly $645,000. In 2010, it totaled more than $1.9 million, Watson said, and produce accounted for about 70% of the sales.

The amount of a buyer’s rebate is based on a sliding scale and is dependent on the amount of Kentucky Proud products purchased. Restaurants and schools can receive a reimbursement of up to 20% of the cost, with a maximum of $12,000 in a 12-month period, Watson said.

Watson said growers have done a good job of promoting Kentucky Proud produce in schools by helping with educational programs.