New U.S. Department of Agriculture rules encourage the use of more local fresh produce and other agriculture products in school meals.

The new regulation, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, allows schools to give preference to unprocessed and locally grown agricultural products when buying for school breakfasts and lunches.

The six-page rule, effective May 23, was published in the April 22 Federal Register.

“This rule is an important milestone that will help ensure that our children have access to fresh produce and other agricultural products,” USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon said in a news release. “It will also give a much-needed boost to local farmers and agricultural producers.”

The regulation supports the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, according to the release. The USDA expects locally grown foods in the U.S. to reach $7 billion in sales by 2012, up from an estimated $4 billion in 2002.

According to the USDA, its Farm to School program is helping schools employ a set of best practices to find capable local producers.

The rule applies to institutions operating child nutrition programs, as well as to purchases made for these programs by the Department of Defense Fresh Program. However, the USDA said the local provision does not apply to purchases made by the agency.

While frozen foods were found acceptable for the local preference option for school meals, the rule excluded canned food. The USDA also said only fresh fruits and vegetables could be purchased locally for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

Additional information about the programs can be found at www.fns.usda.gov and the USDA’s Farm to School initiative website.