[Skip to Content]

Bonding over bread: New Upstate program uses mealtime to make connections

Upstate Medical University will use the time-tested practice of meal-sharing to strengthen relationships and collaboration among medical staff members.

A new program of monthly shared meals aims to improve mental health and well-being of practitioners by strengthening a sense of community that has suffered due to the isolation and staff shortages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Community Building @Upstate (CBU) program is one of four projects across the country to receive a grant from the ALL IN Fund, whose purpose is to provide financial resources to healthcare organizations to implement healthcare workforce well-being solutions and/or further scale promising practices.

A total of $500,000 was awarded to the four organizations and Upstate received $90,500, the full amount it requested, according to Chief Wellness Officer Leslie Kohman, MD.

“The award letter noted that our application scored among the highest of all the contenders and that they are very pleased with the direction of our program,” Kohman said.

Kohman said commensality—the act of eating together—is vital to psychological well-being, especially for health care workers burned out by the pandemic and resulting staffing issues. Most providers eat lunch on the run, losing out on opportunities to connect, collaborate or simply socialize. This trend began well before COVID, and the pandemic further restricted in-person meetings and activities and eliminated opportunities for coworkers to meet other than when working.

“Research that shows that eating together lubricates social interactions, improves well-being and is actually necessary for our neurocognitive well-being,” Kohman said. “As a species we have traditions of eating together. We eat ceremoniously. We eat to celebrate. We eat to mourn. All life milestones include food. That’s because the act of eating together is a key component of being human. We don’t do that much anymore. This is an opportunity to correct that.”

Upstate based its program on a similar one used by the Mayo Clinic and will have small groups of medical staff members gather for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, either on or off campus, once a month. Each group will have a facilitator who will lead the group in a discussion of at least 15 minutes on a pre-determined topic. After that, the group is free to socialize.

Nayla Khoury, MD, co-coordinator of the program along with Justin Meyer, MD, said the long-term goals of the program include improving wellbeing, building a stronger sense of community among healthcare practitioners, promoting professional satisfaction and staff retention. 

Khoury said she felt rejuvenated after participating in the first facilitator training and in one of the first groups to meet.

“The simple practices of coming together, sharing why we decided to sign up and meeting other physicians from different fields of medicine helped me feel connected and excited for the continued community building to come,” said Khoury, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Sense of belonging has always been important to physicians and healthcare providers. Pandemic times in particular have been incredibly taxing and isolating. Improving connections, engagement in community and sense of belonging to a larger mission can help buffer the effects of stress on mental health, combat burnout and promote resilience.”

Upstate started the first groups among physicians who joined the hospital since the pandemic began in 2020 as they lacked the usual opportunities to interact with new colleagues face-to-face. So far, two groups of physicians have started to meet, and a group of psychologists is forming. Nurse practitioners, physician assistants and dentists will also have the opportunity to meet. Kohman said they strive for as much diversity as possible in each group and that includes different specialties, work sites and generations.

Eileen Pezzi, vice president for development, said that Upstate is honored to be one of the inaugural grantees of the ALL In Fund.

“Supporting the health and well-being of our workforce has always been a priority of the Upstate Foundation; however, the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the stress, mental health needs, and the possibility of burnout that healthcare workers experience,” she said. “Community Building @Upstate will address these unique challenges and provide opportunities for practitioners to coalesce and support one another through these difficult times."

"We look forward to partnering with Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, the Entertainment Industry Foundation and #FirstRespondersFirst, all partners of the ALL IN Foundation, to implement this important project," Pezzi said.

Taking in part in a shared meal are, from left, Nayla Khoury, Psychiatry; HeeRak Kang, Physical Medicine & Rehab; Michael Archer, Surgery; Michael Vertino, Neurology; and Jenny Meyer, Neurology.