The pandemic hit during a vulnerable time for farmers and ranchers, creating a "perfect storm" that has made it difficult for them to get their products to people who need them.

"While there are organizations from Second Harvest to local independent food pantries working to address the issue of hunger in the U.S., they currently do not have access to the resources needed to handle the massive amount of food that is being destroyed," Harwood D. Schaffer and Daryll E. Ray of the University of Tennessee write in their latest "Policy Pennings" column.

The Department of Agriculture has set aside $3 billion to buy agricultural products to distribute to food banks and other community organizations that feed people. But though that aid was promised in mid-April, USDA didn't begin making the purchases until this week. That meant tens of millions of pounds of produce went to waste during harvest.

Schaffer and Ray have a solution that they say will likely be expensive, but ultimately more effective.

"Rather than compensating farmers for their losses, we are suggesting that Congress should empower the USDA to use that money—and more if needed—to purchase the crop and have it packed in household-sized packages. We have not read of vegetable-packing facilities being shut down for the coronavirus, but as they are used, we should make sure that they are operated in ways that provide a safe working environment for those involved," Schaffer and Ray write. "Once the vegetables are ready for fresh or frozen distribution, rather than reinventing the wheel, we should use the commercial food-distribution systems that normally would be carrying those vegetables. They would then transport the vegetables and any affected fruits to their local facilities, with the federal government covering the costs. At that point the commercial food-distribution services can then make these food products available, free of cost, to various food pantries in their normal distribution area."

Dairy products should be treated much the same way as produce, write Schaffer and Ray. Meat is more complicated. Read more here.