Soul and Food with Mary Wilson

Checking in with the former Supreme turned cultural ambassador.

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An original member of the Supremes, Mary Wilson has been performing since she was 14 years old. Since the group disbanded in 1977, she's established herself as a solo performer, an author and an advocate for humanitarian causes, In 2003, she was named a Cultural Ambassador for a Department of State program to improve international cross-cultural understanding. Last year she became a spokesperson for the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI), a non-profit focused on finding solutions for humanitarian problems. At a time when food costs have shot up, Wilson is particularly proud of the HDI initiative that gives Food Stamp participants greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables by contributing $5 towards a minimum purchase of $5 at 46 farmers markets in upstate New York. Here's what she had to say about her involvement with HDI and the road that led her to where she is today:

Judith Weinraub: What kinds of things did you do as a cultural ambassador?

Mary Wilson: Each country was different. You performed, visited schools, talked about important issues like AIDS—in some places it was a subject that hadn't been spoken about. In [one country], Stop in the Name of Love became an AIDS anthem. In Laos we planted fruit trees so the children could have a balanced diet. In Bangladesh, we saw young children breaking blocks into building material. I talked about how the Supremes came from poverty, but you can still have a future. I gained a lot.

JW: A performer known for flash and glamour you aren't immediately associated with causes like bringing healthful foods to families who can't afford them. What appealed to you about the farmers' market program?

MW: When I was child in the Brewster Projects in Detroit, my mother had to use food stamps for some of our food. I remember going to the Eastern Market and dragging home 50 pound bags of potatoes. But the market was a pleasure. There was a wonderful feeling of getting the best fresh food.

JW: What kind of meals did you have?

MW: We ate well. Lots of fruits and vegetables and always a well rounded meal cooked at home—no fast foods. We didn't feel we were poor because our plates were always full.

JW: Aside from the healthy foods initiative, part of your responsibility as a cultural ambassador was to find talented young performers and mentor them. How did that work?

MW: It was a little like American Idol. You hear people sing, you listen and you critique.

JW: You've also spoken in women's prisons and even taught etiquette.