A new U.S. Department of Agriculture program is designed to boost local control of school food purchases this year.

The states participating in the pilot haven’t been determined yet, but Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon said in late August that eight states will be granted flexibility to use federal money to purchase locally-grown unprocessed fruits and vegetables for school lunches. Unprocessed fruits and vegetables are considered fresh, frozen or dried, but not canned, according to a USDA news release.

“Allowing pilot states to pursue procurement of local fruits and vegetables with their USDA Foods’ dollars provides added flexibility,” Concannon said in a news release. “It offers states an additional opportunity to bolster local farm economies while providing the children who participate in our school meals programs with healthy food from within their own communities.”

The USDA’s Farm to School Census reports that schools participating in farm to school activities purchased and served more than $385 million in local food in 2011-12. The census found that half of participating schools were planning to purchase even more local foods in the future.

The pilot program allows states and local districts to tap into money usually reserved to buy commodities directly from the USDA. By law, schools receive USDA foods, called “entitlement” foods. In recent years, that entitlement was valued at 23.25 cents for each meal served.

States must apply to the program by Sept. 30, according to the release, and participants in the pilot will be announced by the end of the calendar year.

Casey Wong-Buehler, team lead for fruit and vegetable products for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said the pilot program will allow contracts to have a preference for “local” foods, but states and school districts are not required to favor local food.

Any eligible vendor of fruits and vegetables in the U.S. could potentially supply school districts in the eight pilot states, she said.

If Michigan is selected as one of the pilot states, for example, they obviously would not be able to choose a “local” supplier of grapefruit or other citrus, she said. Under the pilot program, school districts can contract with grower/shippers, wholesalers or distributors when they use the funding, she said.

“We’re trying to tap into whatever model they are using,” she said.

In an Aug. 21 teleconference about the pilot, Nate Sudbeck, USDA AMS commodity procurement official, said fruit and vegetable suppliers who want to eligible for the program must have product liability insurance, proof of domestic sourcing, food safety audit verification and a food defense assessment, as well as other requirements. A vendor list of requirements and application information is available online.

The pilot program is open-ended and does not have a date determined when it will end, USDA officials said in the teleconference.