Language and definitions

Emergency food assistance

Charitable feeding programs whose services are provided to people in times of need. Emergency food programs include food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.


General scarcity of food for a great number of people, causing illness and death.

Federal nutrition program threshold

The point at which a household’s income is deemed too high to allow for eligibility for federal nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).


Food bank

Umbrella organizations or clearinghouses that solicit marketable and surplus food and grocery products and distribute these products to local nonprofit charities or client agencies, which in turn distribute the food directly to needy individuals and families.


Food desert

Parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.

—Largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and healthy food providers.
—To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).
—Food access research atlas:


Food pantry

Organizations that distribute groceries (non-prepared foods, such as canned goods, cereals, rice, bread and sometimes fresh fruits or meat) to people in need in the community.


Food reinforcement

The motivation to obtain food when an individual is not hungry, or how hard an individual will work to obtain food when the individual is not hungry. It is associated with increased energy intake and weight gain.


Food security

A household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

  • High food security: No reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.
  • Marginal food security: One or two reported indications — typically anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.
  • Low food security: Reports of reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
  • Very low food security: Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.



An individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.  A potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.



A condition resulting when a person’s diet does not provide adequate nutrients for growth and maintenance or when a person is not able to adequately utilize the food consumed due to illness. Malnutrition encompasses both undernutrition (too thin, too short, micronutrient deficiencies) and ‘overnutrition’ (overweight and obesity), which should actually be considered ‘unbalanced nutrition’ as it often co-occurs with micronutrient deficiencies.



Micronutrient deficiency

A lack or shortage of a micronutrient (vitamins or minerals) that is essential in small amounts for proper growth and metabolism. People are often said to suffer from “hidden hunger” when they consume enough calories, but suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. This form of hunger may not be visibly apparent in an individual, but it increases morbidity and mortality and also has negative impacts on other aspects of health, cognitive development and economic development. Hidden hunger affects more than 2 billion people worldwide.



Price index

A number used to indicate relative differences in prices across geographies. The index for any particular county is equal to the cost of a standard market basket of goods in that country divided by the average market basket cost across the U.S.




Compared to wasting (or acute malnutrition), which can develop over a short period and is reversible, the development of stunting is a gradual and cumulative process during the 1,000 days window from conception through the first two years of a child’s life. Stunting develops as a result of sustained poor dietary intake or repeated infections or a combination of both.  It has severe, irreversible consequences beyond the shortness of stature, including for physical health (immediate and long-term morbidity and mortality) and cognitive functioning, which are intergenerational.

The indicator for stunting is low height-for-age, a measurement that is calculated by comparing the height of a child against the WHO international growth reference for a child of the same age. Globally, about one in four children under age five are stunted, and a greater proportion of school-age children, adolescent and adults experience the results of having been stunted during their early childhood.




Acute malnutrition, or wasting, develops as a result of recent rapid weight loss or a failure to gain weight. In children, it is assessed by low weight-for-height compared to the WHO international growth reference or mid upper arm circumference (MUAC).

The degree of acute malnutrition is classified as moderate (MAM) or severe (SAM). Wasting is often used to assess the severity of an emergency because it is caused by illness and/or sudden, severe lack of food and is strongly related to mortality