This resource will deepen our understanding of the rapidly changing and increasing number of food and nutrition security terms. Here you will find background information with an emphasis on why terminology matters. There is also a table with terms and definitions. Initially the table will include terms used by the federally-funded food, nutrition, and health programs. Future updates will include terms used by other national organizations.

last update: 2022-12-30


AS PUBLIC HEALTH NUTRITIONISTS, we have long recognized the importance of nutrition and food security, promoting and connecting people to sources of nutrient-rich food for maintaining health.

The impact of the pandemic stressed the nation’s food systems, and induced a surge of food insecurity, with highest rates among Black, Indigenous, and Latino individuals. Access to healthful food everyday to ensure health and well-being became part of mainstream conversations which exposed the deep roots of systematic racism in our food systems, a leading cause of food insecurity.

New priorities, possibilities, and partners have emerged in a concerted effort to achieve food and nutrition security. As a result, many food and nutrition terms have surfaced or resurfaced to describe where we are and where we want to be. We offer this resource to help us understand one another while we work together to ensure equitable access to healthy, safe, and affordable food.




An agency’s or program’s description of a food or nutrition term provides context for their focus and goals, giving the public health nutritionist insight into roles to support them. For example, does the term description include “access” or “diet quality?” These descriptors require different approaches.



People’s lived experiences influence their understanding of terms. Nutritionists benefit from knowing a term’s origins, definitions or descriptions, and having awareness of how it is used to tailor their messages for clear communication to an audience. Word choice can carry influence (e.g., policy making and program funding), cause confusion (e.g., food security versus food sufficiency), or elicit an emotional response (e.g., “Swamp? I don’t live in a swamp!”).



Recent conversations with public health nutritionists working in or with food and nutrition programs revealed many lacked confidence to be able to accurately describe new and emerging food and nutrition terms’ meaning to a lay person. Terms such as food apartheid, food insufficiency, food justice, food sovereignty, and food swamp topped the list. Nutritionists requested a resource that could be used to build common understanding of terms with partners and within their programs. 




What is a term? Merriam Webster defines term as “a word or expression that has a precise meaning in some uses or is peculiar to a science, art, profession, or subject.” Some federally-funded nutrition programs don’t consistently use the same definition for some terms, leading to confusion.



Food, food system, hunger and nutrition researchers, practitioners, advocates, and others create and modify terms to describe, study, and monitor past and current nutrition and public health conditions. Some are formulated through scientific research, some are adaptations of other terms used nationally and/or internationally to better align with an organization’s desired outcomes, and some are adapted to represent communities’ lived experience and observations.



Definitions or descriptions of concepts or terms (e.g., food apartheid, food insecurity, food desert) use similar key words and descriptors related to accessibility, affordability, diet quality, quantity, equity, safety, knowledge, ability, culturally appropriate, health, well-being, social determinants of health, and sustainability. 



Some public health nutritionists use these terms in describing program goals and strategies, and are seeking ways to measure and show impact on food and nutrition security and progress toward food justice.


  • The following table offers a list of food and nutrition security terms referenced in readily available literature on the internet in September 2022. It will be updated as definitions, descriptions, and usage evolve. Check back to find recent updates and additions.This resource does not:
    • claim to be comprehensive and complete. Some definitions may have been overlooked, or read differently on another entity or the same entity’s website.
    • include research on food and nutrition terms.
    • contain all the research references for the evolution of each term.
    • provide recommendations for when to use each term because context matters.
  • The terms in the table are used by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and HHS (United States Department of Health and Human Services) and were referenced from their internet pages as of September 2022. Additionally you will find:
    • one or more definitions for each term as publicly provided by an agency, organization or program.
    • links to reference and resources for more information.
    • keywords which offer considerations for each term’s context. Keywords offer a means to quickly understand what a term includes and may help with identifying the subtle differences between terms.
  • This evolving resource will grow over time. This webpage will be regularly updated as the definitions and usage evolve. Please check back regularly to find recent updates and additions.
  • Future information on this website will include:
    • additional terms used in our work, such as food deserts/swamps/mirages, food justice, food equity, food sovereignty, and more;
    • an interpretation of terms’ meanings and interrelated qualities;
    • terms for which there are ways to track change in status (i.e., measures);
    • updates to terms with revised definitions or descriptions.


TermKey WordsDefinition/Description
Food and Nutrition Securityphysical access to food; social access to food; economic access to food; safe food; sufficient quantity; sufficient quality; health equity; social determinants of health Food and nutrition security means having reliable access to enough high-quality food to avoid hunger and stay healthy. Improving access to nutritious food supports overall health, reduces chronic diseases, and helps people avoid unnecessary health care. Source: HHS, CDC; Date accessed: 12-27-2022.
Food Insecurityfood insecurity; dietary quality and variety; quantity of food; uncertain availability (of food); limited, uncertain acquisition (of food) Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.

Food insecurity: Since the food security measure uses multiple items, it covers households worrying about food running out, dietary quality and variety, and quantity of food consumed. Food insecurity is measured at two levels of severity. In households with low food security, the hardships experienced are primarily reductions in dietary quality and variety. In households with very low food security, the hardships experienced are reduced food intake and skipped meals. Source: USDA-ERS; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Food Insecurity and Social Determinants of Healthfood insecurity; low food security; very low food security; nutrition security; food and nutrition security; social determinants of health Food insecurity is defined as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food "that may be influenced by a number of factors, including income, employment, race/ethnicity, and disability."

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. Source: HHS, HP2030 and HHS, HP2030; Date accessed: 12-27-2022.
Food Insufficiencyfood insufficiency; enough to eat; severity; very low food security Food insufficiency means that households sometimes or often did not have enough to eat.

Food insufficiency: The food insufficiency question provides relatively little detail on the food hardship experienced and indicates only whether a household had enough to eat. Food insufficiency is a more severe condition than food insecurity and measures whether a household generally has enough to eat. In this way, food insufficiency is closer in severity to very low food security than to overall food insecurity. Source: USDA-ERS; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Food Scarcityfood scarcity; food insufficiency Percentage of adults in households where there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last 7 days. Source: U.S. Census Bureau (Reference period is 7 days); Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Food SecurityFood Security; Food Insecurity; Equity Access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food for all people at all times. Source: GusNIP Training, Technical Assistance, Evaluation, and Information Center, Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
access; availability; nutritionally adequate; safe Food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum: The ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods; Assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (that is, without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies). Source: USDA-ERS; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Health equityhealth disparities; social determinants of health; economic obstacles; injustices Is the state in which everyone has a fair and just opportunity to attain their highest level of health. Achieving this requires focused and ongoing societal efforts to address historical and contemporary injustices; overcome economic, social, and other obstacles to health and healthcare; and eliminate preventable health disparities. Source: HHS, CDC; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
High Food Securityno food access problems; no food access limitations High food security (old label=Food security): no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations. Source: USDA-ERS; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Hungerindividual level; physiologic condition Hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity. Source: USDA-ERS; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
consequence of food insecurity; involuntary lack of food The term hunger refers to a potential consequence of food insecurity. Hunger is discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain caused by prolonged, involuntary lack of food. Source: HHS, HP2030; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Limited Access to Healthy Foodsfood access; food availability; built environment; references USDA definition Percent of population that is low-income (below 200% the Federal Poverty Level) and does not live close to a grocery store (more than 10 miles for rural and 1 mile for non-rural). Source: HHS, HRSA; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Low Food Securityreduced diet quality; reduced diet variety; reduced desirability of diet Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake. Source: USDA-ERS; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Marginal Food Securityanxiety over food sufficiency or food in the house Marginal food security (old label=Food security): one or two reported indications—typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake. Source: USDA-ERS; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Nutrition Securityconsistent and equitable access to food; consistent availability of food; affordability; equity Consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe, and affordable foods that promote optimal health and wellbeing. Source: USDA-FNS; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Nutrition security means all Americans have consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe, affordable foods essential to optimal health and well-being. Our approach to tackling food and nutrition insecurity aims to: Recognize all Americans are not maintaining an active, healthy life that is consistent with Federal recommendations; and Emphasize taking an equity lens to our efforts. Source: USDA-FNS; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.
Very Low Food Securitydisrupted eating patterns; very low food intake Very low food security (old label=Food insecurity with hunger): reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. Source: USDA-ERS; Date accessed: 09-13-2022.


  1. White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health: Session Recordings, 09-28-2022
  2. White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health: National Strategy, 09-28-2022
  3. White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health: Website
  4. Defining Food Insecurity and Measuring it During COVID-19, Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), Date accessed: 09-14-2022
  5. Definitions of Food Security, USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), Date accessed: 09-14-2022
  6. Prioritizing Nutrition Security in the US, Viewpoint” editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Academy (JAMA), Date accessed: 09-14-2022
  7. Research Framework that is a multi-dimensional model depicting a wide array of health determinants relevant to understanding and addressing minority health and health disparities, The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), HHS, Date accessed: 09-14-2022



We want to better understand what our members are doing to increase healthy eating and end hunger. We’ll help our members and partners network with this information. 



Are you hearing and seeing terms and definitions in this topic area that you don’t see defined in this resource? We want to know what those terms are and the context in which they’re used.



Do you want more information, training, or technical assistance on the topic of food and nutrition security? We want to hear from our members and partners on this public health nutrition topic.


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