THE BLOG
05/09/2016 04:43 pm ET Updated May 10, 2017

Reducing Food Waste in America: The Next Hot Consumer Issue

In May, coffee giant Starbucks made headlines by announcing it would stop throwing out unsold food items and instead, redistribute the unsellable-but-still-edible products to nearby food banks in refrigerated vans. According to the goals of the new program, called FoodShare, Starbucks would provide five million meals in the first year and nearly 50 million by 2021, when it expects to reach a 100 percent donation rate. It's great that Starbucks is trying to reduce food waste, because the amount of food we Americans toss out has become a national epidemic.

Food waste is a national epidemic. Approximately 40 percent of food in the U.S. gets tossed out. It's is also an environmental issue: more than 97 percent of food waste ends up in landfills -- 33 million tons of food each year. Food waste is a pocketbook problem, a poverty, hunger, and health problem.

Picture your fridge at home. What goes in after a trip to the grocery store, and then what goes straight to the garbage disposal, trash can, or--in the best case--the compost bin. Although my family has tried to reduce food waste, we are all guilty of letting perfectly good food spoil. In the United States, an average family of four leaves more than two million calories, worth nearly $1,500, uneaten each year, according to the USDA.

Today, Americans spend a meager six percent of household budgets on food, less than any nation on earth. It hasn't always been that way; in 1982, we spent more than double that. The availability of low-price food products and a weakened personal connection with our food system has resulted in new generations of Americans who don't see wasting food as a problem. We need to change that way of thinking.

This is a moral issue; how many Americans suffer poverty and food insecurity? One in seven Americans don't have enough to eat. That's nearly 50 million Americans living in food-insecure households; millions are children who don't know where their next meal will come from. And yet we toss out 40 percent of our food.

In 2011, the European Commission established the goal of cutting edible food waste in the EU in half by 2020. The US is behind the EU but not by much. In September of last year, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack joined with the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and the Obama Administration by announcing the first-ever food reduction goal - cutting food waste in half by 2030. The United States is joining other global leaders in vowing to reduce food waste.

These steps by regulators are in important piece of the puzzle, but consumers have an important role to play in this global problem. In fact, perhaps the biggest challenge will be to educate consumers and give them the tools they need to become engaged. Date labeling, for example, is all over the map, with unregulated terms ("expires by", "best by," "use by") often prompting consumers to needlessly toss out good food. Restaurant portions also contribute. They have gotten steadily bigger, and yet consumers aren't encouraged to take home what they don't eat.

I believe that consumers have the greatest untapped potential to reduce our national food waste epidemic. That is why this week, the National Consumers League and Keystone Policy Center are co-hosting a national summit in Washington, DC to explore innovative strategies to confront the American food waste problem.

How can the leaders in food waste reduction who will meet this week make the issue relevant to consumers and engage them in a way that actually results in behavior change? We've successfully made wearing seat belts, stopping smoking, ending littering, and recycling household products a part of the American ethos. How do we do the same with food waste?

Will a new Ad Council campaign, "Save the Food," help shift perspectives? Will the national goal set by the federal government's top health and environmental agencies motivate consumers? Do consumers need clear directions from policymakers and legislation (also known as landfill bans, municipal composting requirements, date labeling standardization) to force change? Leaders in advocacy, industry, and government will talk about all of these issues and more--and your voice can be heard, too, by following the discussion with us on Twitter at #FoodWasteSummit.