Food cart powered by survivors

When people think how they might push back against human trafficking, it isn’t likely that buying a sandwich would be the first action that comes to mind.

Freedom a la Cart hires survivors of human trafficking to help cater food to the local Columbus area. In 2016, the organization trained and paid 48 survivors of human trafficking, according to their website.

“I was just surprised that this was happening right here in our community,” said Paula Haines, the executive director of Freedom. Haines started out as a volunteer for the organization four years ago, but fell in love with Freedom’s approach to helping survivors rebuild their lives.

Haines also organized their first fundraiser, “Eat Up Columbus,” in 2014, which raised $109,000 for the organization. After becoming an official board member for Freedom in 2015, Haines kept the fundraiser as an annual tradition. Haines stepped down from being president of the board to become the executive director in June 2016.

Paula Haines discussing her time at Freedom a la Cart.

Located at the Van Buren Community Center homeless shelter, 595 Van Buren Drive, Columbus, Ohio, Freedom serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to the shelter’s 400-500 visitors daily. Through this grant-funded contract with the shelter, Freedom has created consistent, entry-level employment and training opportunities for their employees since August 2014.

Van Buren Community Center

Photo by Alanna Henderson

Not only does Freedom provide steady employment for sex trafficking survivors, but they also provide benefits, uniforms, workshops, emergency assistance, one-on-one case management and even furnished apartments for eight survivors.

Freedom’s current case manager, April Thacker, is a survivor of sex trafficking. Thacker came as a volunteer to Freedom four years ago while completing her treatment at Amethyst Recovery Center.

April Thacker, case manager at Freedom a la Cart

“I don’t really like cooking, but there was value in it, learning something that I’ve never learned before…caring what it looked like and what I put into it. I just knew that when I came to Freedom I was going to do the best I could,” Thacker said.

Thacker helps employees make the transition into their new lives by helping them find apartments, getting their driver’s license, creating budgets and whatever else the ladies need outside of work.

Stephanie, a survivor and worker at Freedom a la Cart, making sandwiches in the kitchen.

Originally called Doma International, which was founded by Julie Clark in 2009, the program was created in conjunction with C.A.T.C.H Court, a rehabilitation program established by the Franklin County court system, to give survivors workforce training and jobs.

Freedom a la Cart started as a food cart in 2011, having survivors create simple sandwiches and snacks across Columbus. Now the organization can cater weddings and sells boxed lunches to Ohians. In 2014, Doma International and Freedom a la Cart merged to become the non-profit business it is today.

The program works to give survivors the means and work experience to survive on their own, Haines said.

Currently the organization is raising money to open a café.

“We really see that as our next step,” said Haines. With the success from Freedom’s steady catering and boxed lunch business, the organization hopes to acquire their own kitchen and office space to open the doors to the public.

“Once we do that and introduce people into our world…we will have a really strong model that with CATCH Court and Freedom together, we can replicate this in cities around the nation,” Haines said.