Growing Chefs! charity looks to get back on its feet after copper theft hampers operations

A London, Ont. charitable organization is trying to get back on its feet after getting hit by suspected copper thieves for the second time this year.

Growing Chefs! Ontario,which hosts cooking classes and other programs for youth and families, said part of its operations will be down for several more weeks while they wait for replacement equipment and parts.

“They tore them open and ripped out all the copper wiring,” said Executive Director Andrew Fleet as he stood next to two hollowed-out motors used to power a commercial fridge and freezer at its King Street headquarters.

According to Flett, the headquarters was first targeted in February and then again in March. 

“The first thing that went through my mind is ‘Oh man, not something else,’ followed quickly by ‘What are we going to do?’ and it undoes months worth of work. And running a charity and running a business in this day and age is difficult at the best of times," he said.

Replacement cost for the motors is estimated between $10,000 and $20,000, but the bigger hit is in lost revenue of $1,200 to $25,000 per month. That’s because the King Street site will not be able to stage planned events without the equipment, which is on back order due to the pandemic, according to Fleet.

“Four to 16 weeks for new units to arrive, and then we’re going to have to install them in a different place in the building. We’re going to have to protect them so hopefully they won’t be stolen again. That’s going to involve quite a bit of infrastructure work, new electrical work. Insurance will help with some of it, but there’s a lot of additional work that we’re going to have to come up with ourselves,” he added.

The organization teaches about 10,000 children each year, including families who come in on their own, and from schools who bring in classes. Fleet says they provide lessons in food education that will last children a lifetime.

“How it supports the economic health of the community, how it supports their own personal health," said Fleet. 

Growing Chefs! Executive Chef Katherine Jones said she’s heartbroken by the break-ins and thefts, but at the same time she has compassion for those in need.

“I wish we could just take a $20 bill and tape it to the back of our copper wiring,” she said. “But nobody knows. The people who are doing this to us are in a desperate situation themselves.”

Salvage dealer Charlie Gelinas who owns Specialized Recycling on Horton Street, said he turns away anything that looks suspicious.

“I probably refuse 10 or 15 people a week. If they can’t satisfactorily account to me where the material came from we don’t buy it, period," Gelinas said.

He said copper sells for about four dollars per pound.

“It’s a fraction of what it costs to fix the damage that’s been done,” said Fleet. “So it’s a very short term fix for people who are clearly in a desperate place.”

London police said officers are investigating the break-ins at Growing Chefs!, but no arrests have been made at this time.