John Hoffmire: Empowering survivors of sex trafficking through cause cuisine

Published: Monday, March 17 2014 7:00 a.m. MDT

Fancy dining and charity have been closely linked since at least the 19th century. What better way to raise funds for a charity than to collect potential donors together and to feed them?

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Fancy dining and charity have been closely linked since at least the 19th century. Ticket sales alone raise money, and then an inspirational program conducted over a sumptuous luncheon or dinner persuades the paying guests to reach more deeply into their wallets to make additional (and, it is hoped, generous) donations. Some social entrepreneurs have begun reinventing this time-honored association of food and philanthropy.

Although food has been used as a fundraising hook in the past, it is now moving toward being an aid for at-risk populations.

For example, the term “cause cuisine” was coined by the founders of Freedom a la Cart, an organization located in Columbus, Ohio, that employs female survivors of sex trafficking. Freedom a la Cart is the result of a partnership between Doma International, an organization active in Russia, Ethiopia, and the U.S., and CATCH (Changing Actions to Change Habits), a program run by the Franklin County, Ohio, Municipal Court.

The “cause cuisine” model enables participants to learn job and life skills including planning, purchasing, food preparation, customer service, time management, nutrition, and personal finance, in order to help them move out of at-risk situations and become independent.

Doma and CATCH assist with this cause in different ways. Doma’s aim is to “empower women to care for themselves and their children” through programs that seek to interrupt the “orphan cycle” by providing services to both women and children in at-risk situations or environments, according to Domaconnection.org. The CATCH program is a prostitution diversion intervention based on the principle that women caught in sex trafficking, with the violence and substance abuse that go hand in hand with it, can be successfully reintegrated into mainstream society if provided with job and life skills that enable them to break their dependence on traffickers.

Freedom, which started two years ago as a mobile food cart and has moved into catering full-scale meals, has the capacity to employ six participants from the CATCH program. If the ongoing building campaign to launch a full-service restaurant is successful, they would be able to triple this number. Freedom tapped into current culinary trends that emphasize fresh and local ingredients, regional cuisines and food prepared from scratch, which both allows them to provide a service that is in demand by the local community, and to differentiate themselves from franchise restaurants and institutional catering.

Freedom currently has the capacity to employ six participants from the CATCH program; an ongoing building campaign to launch a full-service restaurant, if successful, would enable them to triple that number. The “CATCH ladies,” as the participants are referred to, are involved in all aspects of the business, from kitchen maintenance and food prep to customer service and management. In addition to culinary skills, participants have opportunities to learn about business management, marketing, graphic design and grant writing.

Case management, counseling, medical and other services are provided to support the participants in all aspects of their transition to self-sufficiency. Although there is, perhaps unavoidably, some recidivism, the program has already had several success stories, including one program graduate who is now employed as Freedom’s donation and transportation coordinator.

Freedom a la Cart joins a growing number of organizations that combine providing good food to their local communities with serving those communities by through training and support services for individuals down on their luck.

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