Abstract Background Community-based food initiatives have developed in recent years with the aim of engaging previously ‘hard to reach’ groups. Lay workers engaged in community nutrition activities are promoted as a cost-effective mechanism for reaching underserved groups. The primary objective of the study was to explore perceptions and definitions of lay helping within the context of National Health Service (NHS) community nutrition and dietetic services to identify existing terms and definitions and propose an overarching term. Methods Interpretive qualitative inquiry; semi-structured interviews with lay food and health worker (LFHW) and NHS professionals employed by community-based programmes, serving ‘hard-to-reach’ neighbourhoods, across England. Results In total, 29 professionals and 53 LFHWs were interviewed across 15 of the 18 projects identified. Across all the projects, there was a preference for the use of one of two terms, either Community Food Worker or Community Nutrition Assistant, in reference to lay workers. There was no consensus in terms of a unifying term or definition for this new role. Conclusions Current variation in the terms and definitions used for this role is problematic and is hindering development and effective utilization of lay helping within the broad remit of community food and health and dietetics. The umbrella term ‘Lay Food and Health Worker’ is proposed based upon definitions and interpretations from the field.