April 26, 2019

Connecting hungry Coloradans to nutritious food

Dr. Sandra Stenmark is honored for her work that’s helped thousands of people experiencing food insecurity.

If you want to be healthy, you need a reliable supply of nutritious food.

Sandy Stenmark, MD, has worked to make this simple fact part of the regular conversations that doctors have with patients and their families within Kaiser Permanente and beyond.

Sandy Stenmark, MD
Sandy Stenmark, MD

Dr. Stenmark retired last year as a pediatrician in the Colorado Permanente Medical Group and as the physician director for Kaiser Permanente’s Clinic to Community Integration in Colorado. In her latter role, she partnered with others to launch a pioneering program to help patients and their families who don’t have consistent access to the food they need to be healthy. In the United States, 1 in 8 households and 1 in 6 households with children are in that situation.

The Kaiser Permanente program, which began in 2011, screens, identifies, and connects patients facing hunger to federal food assistance programs and other resources, such as food pantries, in partnership with the nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado. Dr. Stenmark helped launch the program in Kaiser Permanente clinics, and she also reached out to help Colorado community hospitals and child care facilities adopt similar programs.

“I continue to work on addressing food insecurity because it brings me joy,” she said. “I’m constantly learning, and I’m working in partnerships with others to change systems and policies so that everyone has the chance to achieve their highest level of health.”

Exemplary work, national honor

In recognition of her exemplary work to advance Kaiser Permanente’s mission to improve community health, the Community Health Awards Committee of the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals Board of Directors recently awarded Dr. Stenmark the 2019 George Halvorson Community Health Leadership Award. George Halvorson served as chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente from 2002 to 2013. A charity of Dr. Stenmark’s choice will receive a $10,000 donation from Kaiser Permanente in her name.

“We are pleased to honor Dr. Stenmark,” said Cynthia Telles, PhD, Community Health Committee board chair. “Because of her work, thousands of eligible, low-income residents of Colorado are now able to access critically important federal programs such as food stamps.”

“Dr. Stenmark’s work to screen for food insecurity is not only inspirational, it helped lay a foundation for our current work to incorporate the social needs of our members into their care,” said Bechara Choucair, MD, Kaiser Permanente’s chief community health officer.

Vision, persistence, and focus

The hunger screening and referral program initially launched in 2 Kaiser Permanente Colorado pediatric clinics that serve high percentages of Medicaid members. The evaluation of the program and other food insecurity initiatives in Colorado informed expansion of the program and state policy.

“I think it’s fair to call her a visionary,” said John Steiner, MD, a senior research investigator with Kaiser Permanente in Colorado. “She saw earlier than most of us that this was a critical health issue, and she insisted that we focus on helping our members and our communities.”

Kaiser Permanente provided funding to help Children’s Hospital Colorado develop a food-insecurity screening program, and Christina Suh, MD, associate medical director of the Child Health Clinic at the hospital, has worked closely with Dr. Stenmark ever since.

“She’s been a tireless advocate and a selfless partner. She brings so much knowledge to the table, and she’s eager to share so we all can do better,” Dr. Suh said.

There are now 22 private and public medical providers referring patients to Hunger Free Colorado’s Food Resource Hotline, and more than 37,600 people have received assistance since Kaiser Permanente helped launch the medical referral program.

“I like to think about the impact she’s had on the children of Colorado,” said Carmen Martin, Kaiser Permanente senior community health specialist. “There are now thousands of children who have the energy to play, to focus on school work, and to sleep at night because their families now have enough food.”