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Food Program Terms and Definitions

Cans of food from food bank
Courtesy of sterlingpr (via Flickr)

It’s hard enough to navigate through your local food resources, and even harder if the commonly used terms aren’t clear. Here are some frequently used food insecurity words, phrases, and acronyms, and their definitions to help make things a little more understandable:

Term Definition
ERS The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The ERS conducts research that informs public and private decision-making on economic and policy issues about food, as well as farming, natural resources, and rural development.
Food Bank A warehouse of millions of pounds of food from growers, packers, processors, manufacturers, the USDA, and grocery stores. Volunteers sort, repack, and shelve the food, which is eventually delivered to pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, homeless shelters and youth centers. There are some food banks that also directly distribute food to individuals and families in weekly grocery bags or farmers’ market-style distributions, meaning the food is out on tables and people can choose what they want to take.
Food Desert According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”
Food Insecurity Not enough food available on a regular basis, no resources to obtain the right foods for a nutritious diet, and lack of information and knowledge on basic nutrition and care.
Food Kitchen/Soup Kitchen A place where hot meals are made available to people in need for free or very low cost.
Food Pantry Often housed in churches and daycare facilities, pantries get their food from food banks, private donations, and the USDA commodities program. They distribute boxes of emergency groceries to people in need.
Hunger A severe lack of food that results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation, or yearning for food.
Malnutrition A condition that develops when the body doesn’t get the right amount of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs. Malnutrition leads to unhealthy organ functioning and tissues.
SNAP The new name for food stamps, SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The new name “reflects the changes we’ve made to meet the needs of our clients, including a focus on nutrition and an increase in benefit amounts.” Find out if you’re eligible for SNAP.
Starvation The result of a severe or total lack of nutrients needed to sustain life.
USDA The U.S. federal department that supervises programs that provide services to farmers. Also oversees other programs, through Food and Nutrition Service, like SNAP and WIC, which provide nutritious food to people in the U.S.
WIC Stands for Women, Infants, and Children, and gives Federal grants to states for “supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.” Find out if you qualify by looking over the eligibility guidelines.


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