Survivors of human trafficking are involved in the entire food production process, from preparing to delivering the boxed lunches and catered meals at Freedom a la Cart. Credit: Courtesy of Carissa Martin

Armed with a simple idea and a food cart purchased from eBay, one Columbus nonprofit had hopes of making a difference in the lives of those affected by human trafficking.

Thanks to community support, talented staff and a product everyone can enjoy, Freedom a la Cart has been able to do just that and more.

In the seven years since its inception, Freedom a la Cart, a catering and box lunch business that’s dedicated to staffing human trafficking survivors, has grown to provide more than 200 survivors with unwavering support, a sense of community and a place to achieve their goals, Paula Haines, executive director of the nonprofit, said.

“The food is delicious, and you’re supporting a great cause with a mission that empowers women, so it’s a win-win,” Haines said.

Freedom a la Cart offers signature boxed lunches and catering services and specializes in fresh food made from scratch, Haines said. A diverse selection of breakfast, hors d’oeuvre and dessert options are also sold.

“We had this vision of making food that was flavorful and unique but was also a quality product, so people would continue to come back again and again,” Haines said.

Survivors are involved in the entire process of food production, from preparing the food to delivering it and they have opportunities to advance in the company in a variety of ways, with some women currently serving as kitchen or case managers.

“A lot of community happens in the kitchen,” Haines said. “The catering and food aspect naturally enhances the program as a social enterprise.”

Freedom a la Cart also offers numerous programs to help survivors reach full independence, including, but not limited to, case management, transportation to treatment facilities, support securing a driver’s license and assistance with furnishing and moving into their first homes.

The nonprofit also developed the Butterfly Program, a program aimed at assisting women transitioning from treatment to real life, Haines said.

“We recognized that the key to full self-sufficiency is getting a job and making your own money, and that many women struggled with this piece,” Haines said. “But we also take a more holistic approach to helping survivors that may be dealing with other issues in their lives as well.”

It was this multifaceted approach to helping survivors excel that made The PRactice, a student-run PR firm at Ohio State, interested in working with the nonprofit in the first place, Olivia Smith, account supervisor for The PRactice, said.

“Freedom is very mindful of how difficult the transition [a survivor faces from treatment into the real world] can be, and tailors their support to each person, so it is the most helpful it can be,” Smith, a fourth-year in communication, said.

While helping the nonprofit gain outreach and publicity is its main goal, The PRactice will also produce a marketing video and help bring more educational resources to campus.

“Human trafficking is relevant to everyone because it is an issue that the world is facing,” Smith said. “Getting these resources on campus is a way to educate students so they are more informed and aware of the potential signs.”

Haines said the organization also has plans to expand in the near future as funds become available to move into a combined space that will house the catering business on one side and a new cafe on the other.

“With a more interactive cafe, people will be able to enjoy our food while also learning more about human trafficking,” Haines said.

Until then, Freedom a la Cart is concentrated on getting its name out into the Columbus and Ohio State communities and planning smaller events and happy hours so potential customers have the opportunity to try their food.

Freedom a la Cart is an Ohio State preferred vendor, meaning its food can be ordered by student groups with their allocated funds and served at Ohio State campus locations. When purchasing food through the Ohio State e-store, students and faculty will be given a 10 percent discount and free delivery.

“We want to stand as a beacon of hope for the Columbus community,” Haines said. “And for everyone to see the hope and restoration that happens when you support survivors.”