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? 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. This paradigm has proven successful for a very long time, and is likely to be with us for a long time to come.

Recently, however, some social entrepreneurs have begun putting a new spin on this time-honored association of food and philanthropy. Rather than using cuisine merely as a fundraising hook, they are using it to provide services directly to at-risk populations. The “cause cuisine” model enables participants to learn job skills, such as planning, purchasing, food preparation, cooking and customer service, along with personal life skills, such as time management, nutrition, personal grooming and personal finance, in order to help them move out of at-risk situations and become self-supporting.

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. 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. 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.

Although it started two years ago as a mobile food cart (hence “a la cart”), Freedom has moved primarily into catering, preparing and serving everything from hors d’oeuvres to full banquets. They have 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, to food prep and cooking to customer service and management. In addition to culinary skills, participants have opportunities to learn about business management, marketing, graphic design and grant writing.

Additional services (case management, counseling, medical, etc.) 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 providing training, support services, and caring and productive environments for individuals who have fallen through the cracks in one way or another. Tabitha Woodruff, Freedom’s Director, pointed to fellow Columbus business Freshbox Catering, which was founded in 2009 and provides services similar to Freedom’s, but works with the homeless population. Café Reconcile has been serving at-risk youth, ages 16 to 22, in a distressed area of New Orleans since 1996. In the process of pursuing its social mission of providing training and a safe space for young people trying to escape the cycle of poverty and violence endemic to the area, the cafe has become a destination restaurant in its own right.

As the example of Café Reconcile attests, cause cuisine is not an entirely new concept. Another story we have written about involves an ex-prostitute who has started a successful coffee shop in Phoenix. Through her business, she has helped many others on their way to recovery. “So much has been given to me in my life through the kindness and support of the women who have walked the path of recovery before me, but starting this business was totally on my own. I tried to work with a business assistance organization and they told me that I would need over $100,000 as a start.” Not having that kind of seed money, LD, the initials of the woman we quoted, did all of the renovations on the building herself with the help of her friends.

However, these types of business, perhaps, remained under the radar—it is difficult to find many similar organizations except by word of mouth. In coining the term “cause cuisine,” Freedom a la Cart has provided a catchy name for this brand of social entrepreneurship. And sometimes all a movement needs in order to be recognized is a great name.

John Hoffmire and Frances Laskey work at the Said Business School at University of Oxford and the University of Wisconsin.

Frances Laskey is a former HR director and current Ph.D. student in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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