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Small Sips #3: What are We Talking About Exactly?

Before we go too much further into our learning on hunger and food insecurity, it is important to be clear about what we are talking about.  As you read articles, listen to news reports, and participate in webinars on food and hunger, you will hear references to hunger and malnutrition, to food security and insecurity, to food systems and food sovereignty, to industrial agriculture and sustainable agriculture, and more.

We can’t cover everything all at once, but in this week’s Sip we are pausing to examine the words we use, and the words governments and humanitarian organizations use, when speaking specifically about hunger. Let’s get clear in our listening, our reading, our speaking, and our writing about hunger so that our advocacy will be accurate, forceful and effective.

So, here we go. Let’s begin with hunger itself.


Hunger is an uncomfortable or painful physical sensation caused by lack of food. It becomes chronic when a person does not consume sufficient calories and nutrients on a regular basis to lead a normal, active, and healthy life.

Chronic hunger is sometimes referred to as “undernourishment” by governments and humanitarian aid organizations. A diet characterized by an insufficient intake of calories, proteins, vitamins and minerals impedes human development for infants, children, and adults. This negatively impacts the health, education, economic, and social development of entire communities.


Malnutrition refers to deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances in a person’s intake of food energy and nutrients. The term malnutrition addresses three broad groups of conditions:

  • Undernutrition is the result of deficiencies in food energy, protein, or micronutrients. Undernutrition shows up in measurable physical signs that include wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting (low height-for-age) and underweight (low weight-for-age).
  • Micronutrient-related malnutrition encompasses both micronutrient deficiencies (also known as “hidden” or “silent” hunger) and micronutrient excess. Micronutrient deficiencies exist when intake or absorption of vitamins and minerals is too low to sustain good health and development in children or normal physical and mental function in adults. Causes include poor diet, disease, or increased micronutrient needs that are not met during pregnancy and lactation. Micronutrient excess is uncommon and is usually not related to diet alone, but to overuse of dietary supplements.
  • Overweight, obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers).

Every country in the world is affected by one or more of these forms of malnutrition. Women, infants, children, and adolescents are at the highest risk.

Food Security | Food Insecurity

Food security is having consistent, reliable, physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food.

When a person lacks regular access to enough food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life, they are food insecure. This may be due to the unavailability of food or a lack of resources to obtain food, or both. Food insecurity exists because there are barriers preventing access to food.

Food insecurity can be temporary, seasonal, or chronic, and is experienced at varying levels of severity. The more food insecure a person is, the more likely they are to experience chronic hunger. For those who are moderately food insecure, access to food is uncertain. They might have to sacrifice other basic needs, just to be able to eat. When they do eat, it might be whatever is most readily available or cheapest, which might not be the most nutritious food. For those who are severely food insecure, they have run out of food and, at the most extreme, have gone days without eating.

Acute food insecurity exists when a person's inability to access adequate food puts their lives or livelihoods in immediate danger.

Food Crisis | Food Emergency | Food Catastrophe | Famine

When food insecurity becomes acute for many people across a specific geographic area, governments and humanitarian aid organizations refer to internationally-recognized classifications to assess the danger and plan for life-saving responses. One such scale is the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).

The IPC defines food insecurity in five increasing levels or “phases” of severity. The terms they use are:

IPC Phase 1  None/Minimal
IPC Phase 2  Stressed
IPC Phase 3  Crisis
IPC Phase 4  Emergency
IPC Phase 5  Catastrophe or Famine

Each word is used precisely. They are not interchangeable. These classifications are used by governments and aid organizations to help inform decisions on resource allocation and humanitarian and development assistance programming, both globally and within countries. Watch for these specific words as you listen to and read news reports from hunger hotspots in the world.

Dig Deeper…

Thank you for reading this not-so-Small Sip! You’ve now covered some important basics. If you’d like to dig deeper, each heading above links to a webpage with further information. Just click to explore.

Thank you for joining us on this learning journey. See you next week!

[This is the third installment in our Small Sips series on The Right to Food.]

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