July 17, 2019

Princeton Suppers Program Faces a Sobering Future

By Anne Levin

Since founding the Suppers program 14 years ago at her Princeton kitchen table, Dorothy Mullen has helped hundreds of people feel better by teaching them how to avoid processed foods and environmental toxins, and embrace a healthier way of eating to fuel the body and brain. The nonprofit has grown to a network of support groups with more than 30 trained facilitators, who currently hold 23 meetings a month where members cook together, eat together, and share stories and experiences.

Now Suppers is facing a sobering next step. Mullen was diagnosed in early April with stage IV lung cancer, and has elected to forgo treatment. Instead, she is at home, currently on hospice but receiving visitors for an hour each evening, and helping plan for Suppers to carry on her vision without her.

Before founding Suppers, Mullen was involved in the creation of vegetable gardens for Princeton Public Schools (PPS). The Board of Education was to honor her at its meeting Tuesday night, July 16, with a special proclamation.

The proclamation praises Mullen, who is 64, for imagining “that school gardens could become transformative places of learning and discovery for children in the Princeton Public Schools (and their teachers and parents)”; going on to say Mullen “has dedicated herself to the transforming of a grassy slope outside of the Riverside Elementary School into an abundant garden classroom, brimming with vegetables and herbs.” In addition to serving as an outdoor classroom, “the Riverside garden (with the help of students, families, and community volunteers) now supplies hundreds of pounds of produce each year to local food pantries.” It concludes by commending Mullen “for her beautiful vision, her indomitable spirit, her singular creativity, and her endless generosity — all of which shall continue to flourish in the gardens, and all of which enhance and reflect the mission of Princeton Public Schools.”

As much as she can, Mullen is spending time in her own expansive garden, and sharing plants for visitors to take home to replant in their own gardens. In a note to members of the Suppers website and in a long account she wrote in the July 10 issue of U.S. 1, she is matter-of-fact and upbeat about her illness.

“She’s completely at peace, and I’m not just saying that,” said Lee Yonish, who is Suppers’ interim executive director. “Obviously, she’s concerned with the legacy of the program because she has seen firsthand how much it has helped people. But she has faith that we will take care of her program.”

Board of trustees member Marion Reinson said, “Although Dorothy’s diagnosis was a horrific shock, it has been serendipitous that the organization has spent the last two years bullding programs and expanding offerings so that it is not so Dorothy-centric. We knew the program could continue and grow without her.”

Years of aching joints, digestive problems, and depression that landed her in a psychiatric hospital at age 29 led Mullen to conclude that mercury poisoning from extensive dental work, when she was 15, was the root of her ailments. Nothing seemed to work; no diagnosis made sense. Gradually, she began gardening, eliminating certain foods from her diet, and exercising, and realized she felt better. Sharing cooking, meals, and experiences with others helped too, forming the basis for Suppers.

The program has been based at Mullen’s home. “We have plans for bricks and mortar, but I can’t say more than that,” said Yonish. “The garden will always be a big priority, though.”

Programs created by Mullen will be solidified and expanded, Yonish said. “All of this is about providing the setting where people can develop and manage their paths to better health. Cooking will continue to be a huge piece of it.”

Suppers’ members and board are navigating a difficult time. “But everyone is feeling gratitude, as we always have toward Dorothy, but especially now,” said Yonish. “We’re not trying to carry it forward just for her. We know its an effective program. So it’s a mood of gratitude, and also ‘let’s do this.’ We know it’s the right thing to do, and will continue to help people.”

Suppers is supported, largely, by individual donors. “We are going to try to raise money in a serious way, very soon,” said Yonish. “We also want to develop programs that will bring in some programmatic revenue.”

In her recent note on the Suppers website, Mullen wrote, “Suppers will continue to exist because of a team of dedicated and engaged staff, Board members and volunteers who are committed to the continuation of our program.”

“The community piece of Suppers is what makes it different from anything else I’ve seen,” said Reinson. “The core of the organization is the community, and that’s the eaters, the farmers, and health care practitioners all working together to guide people along their path to greater health. Dorothy, in her brilliance, has created these safe, non-judgmental environments for people to explore incremental changes that, over time, have great impact.

Yonish said, “She’s one in a million. That’s all I can say about her.”