This week the Inside Track continues a series of interviews with members of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, exploring their various contributions to the fight against childhood obesity.
PreventObesity.net Leader Dwayne Wharton was born and raised in Philadelphia and grew up in a community that was, as he recalls, “uneven.”
“There were pockets of affluence and pockets of poverty, and I lived very close to the affluent community but didn’t know it at all,” said Wharton, now the Director of External Affairs for the Philadelphia-based The Food Trust and a member of the Strategic Advisory Committee for the Voices for Healthy Kids initiative. “I got older and I realized there was this inequality in terms of opportunity and outcomes.”
He recalled trips to the local corner store as a kid and later realizing that just blocks away in a different neighborhood was a healthy food co-op: “It wasn’t the same processed junk that existed three blocks in the other direction.”
After finishing college, an opportunity he noted few who grew up in his neighborhood had, Wharton started his career working with homeless people in Philadelphia. He also worked with the Red Cross on relief for disasters including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
“Community health has always been my focus, but it’s taken different forms,” Wharton said. It was “not a far leap to move into this other world of advocacy as it ties into healthy food access.” He sees the work the Food Trust is doing as providing “opportunities for social justice in our community.”
He has been at the Food Trust for three years as Director of External Affairs, working with all the organization’s programs “to help them grow and to be more impactful.” The Philadelphia-based organization works in its home city and around the country on programs that improve the healthy food environment, from farmers’ markets to school programs to the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which has enlisted 650 store owners as partners in making fruits, vegetables and other nutritious foods more available to neighborhood shoppers—and improve and expand their businesses at the same time.
“We have lots of touch points in the community, looking to strengthen the work that’s happening at that level,” Wharton said.
On a national level, Wharton noted, the Food Trust has taken the lessons it has learned in Pennsylvania and sought to help its partners apply them elsewhere. In the Voices for Healthy Kids campaign, organizations such as the Food Trust are “looking to go into areas that are underserved in terms of healthy food access and try to help inform communities about the situation around the lack of healthy food and what that means,” Wharton said, in terms of health and economic impacts. The Food Trust is a “healthy food access hub” under the campaign, providing support and advice to programs that receive grants.
“It’s exciting work,” he says. “You get to go into lots of diverse areas, rural and urban. Every community looks different, but there are a lot of common themes.”
Working on the Strategic Advisory Committee, he says his role is “to be a liaison for the Food Trust and to find ways to partner with the other groups” that are working on key issues surrounding improving healthy food access, from marketing to labeling to initiatives such as the corner store program.
Back home in Philadelphia, he also works with two local foundations and recently won a 2014 Minority Business Leader Award from the Philadelphia Business Journal for his work as president of the Seybert Foundation, a 100-year-old charity that serves disadvantaged children in Philadelphia. In his role with Seybert, Wharton has worked to make its board of directors younger and more diverse to better reflect the population it is serving.
In his spare time, he coaches his daughters and their teammates in soccer, a sport that was unfamiliar to him during his own childhood. Their league was once mostly white and called the Fathers’ Club, he recalled; “the one barrier with that was that we all grew up with single moms.” It’s now the Chestnut Hill Youth Sports Club and, Wharton notes with pride, is a diverse collection of young players, coaches and volunteers.
Both at work and play, Wharton says, “being able to see the other side, I’m fortunate in that regard and what I want most for my community is to provide a more fair and balanced existence.”
“The work that I’m doing for the Food Trust allows me to make an impact in that way.”
Donna Brutkoski authored this article.