Background Humanitarian relief agencies use scales to assess levels of critical food shortage to efficiently target and allocate food to the neediest. These scales are often labor-intensive. A lesser used approach is assessing gathering and consumption of wild food plants. This gathering per se is not a reliable signal of emerging food stress. However, the gathering and consumption of some specific plant species could be considered markers of food shortage, as it indicates that people are compelled to eat very poor or even health-threatening food. Methods We used the traffic light metaphor to indicate normal (green), alarmingly low (amber) and fully depleted (red) food supplies and identified these conditions for Konso (Ethiopia) on the basis of wild food plants (WFPs), crop parts (crop parts not used for human consumption under normal conditions; CPs) and crop residues (CRs) being gathered and consumed. Plant specimens were collected for expert identification and deposition in the National Herbarium. Two hundred twenty individual households free-listed WFPs, CPs, and CRs gathered and consumed during times of food stress. Through focus group discussions, the species list from the free-listing that was further enriched through key informants interviews and own field observations was categorized into species used for green, amber and red conditions. Results The study identified 113 WFPs (120 products/food items) whose gathering and consumption reflect the three traffic light metaphors: red, amber and green. We identified 25 food items for the red, 30 food items for the amber and 65 food items for the green metaphor. We also obtained reliable information on 21 different products/food items (from 17 crops) normally not consumed as food, reflecting the red or amber metaphor and 10 crop residues (from various crops), plus one recycled stuff which are used as emergency foods in the study area clearly indicating the severity of food stress (red metaphor) households are dealing with. Our traffic light metaphor proved useful to identify and closely monitor the types of WFPs, CPs, and CRs collected and consumed and their time of collection by subsistence households in rural settings. Examples of plant material only consumed under severe food stress included WFPs with health-threatening features like Dobera glabra (Forssk.) Juss. ex Poir. and inkutayata, parts of 17 crops with 21 food items conventionally not used as food (for example, maize tassels, husks, empty pods), ten crop residues (for example bran from various crops) and one recycled food item (tata). Conclusions We have complemented the conventional seasonal food security assessment tool used by humanitarian partners by providing an easy, cheap tool to scale food stress encountered by subsistence farmers. In cognizance of environmental, socio-cultural differences in Ethiopia and other parts of the globe, we recommend analogous studies in other parts of Ethiopia and elsewhere in the world where recurrent food stress also occurs and where communities intensively use WFPs, CPs, and CRs to cope with food stress.