People and programs 05/13/2021
The Bow Valley Food Alliance (BVFA) is a regional organization of passionate citizens and professionals dedicated to addressing food insecurity. A partner of Community Food Centres Canada since 2019, BVFA addresses issues regarding access to affordable, healthy and fresh food in a coordinated way from the continental divide to the foothills along the Bow River corridor in Alberta—from Lake Louise, ID9, Banff, Canmore, Exshaw, MD of Bighorn to Morley and Stoney Nakoda Nations.

Imagine a town where every new building development was required to plant—and foot the bill for—a community garden. Better access to fresh, healthy food. Opportunities to get your hands dirty and grow your own food. Stronger connection to your neighbours, and to nature.

That’s what the Bow Valley Food Alliance is working to make possible in several Alberta communities. And it all started with one big idea.

Starting a conversation about food insecurity

When a new initiative to address food insecurity landed on Jill Harrison’s desk, her first thought was: “I can’t do this alone.”

But as Community Development Coordinator for the Town of Banff in Bow Valley, she had networks she could reach out to. And before long, Jill had convened a group of community members who had one thing in common—a passion for ensuring everyone has access to good food.

Together, they are the Bow Valley Food Alliance.

“We are connectors—working to connect food resources to those in need,” explains Jill.

“We also focus on advocating at the municipal and provincial levels. We’re calling for a capacity building approach that gives everyone a voice, especially the most vulnerable.”

The group meets regularly to discuss issues and potential solutions for their local food system. In one meeting, the idea of a Food Charter was raised.

They imagined the Charter as a tool to express the community’s values surrounding the foods they grow, harvest, and eat. And the goal? To get every municipality in the region to commit to those values.

The BVFA collected input from the community through meetings, workshops, and interviews, and by March 2020, the Food Charter was ready for signatories.

“We were invited by a local councillor in Lake Louise to a meeting to talk about the Food Charter,” recalls Avni Soma, Vice-President of the BVFA Board. “A few days later, they became the first municipality to officially sign it. We were so excited! But then COVID-19 happened, and we had to go into pandemic response mode.”

Shifting focus to respond to the emergency

The Food Charter work was put on hold and BVFA hired its first staff—a COVID response coordinator whose job was to reach out to the community and respond to different needs.

“When all the restaurants suddenly shut down, there were real issues with food access, especially for people working in the tourism industry,” says Avni.

On top of losing out on income, most of the housing for hospitality workers doesn’t include a kitchen.

“They might have a hot plate—that’s it. Staff ate most meals at the restaurants they worked in. It was never really recognized as an issue before COVID.”

The BVFA responded to this issue by partnering with local organizations to offer pre-prepared meals. They also expanded their affordable Good Food Box program to be more accessible to the community, and now the program provides 600 boxes to local households each month. But they know this is only addressing one part of the problem.

“The cost of living is so high in the Bow Valley region that people who work in those [lower-paid, seasonal] jobs are often forced to choose between paying rent or buying food,” says Avni.

“That’s essentially what food insecurity is. It's about those tough choices. The pandemic has definitely exposed weaknesses in our local and national food systems.”

A community building its own food systems

Despite BVFA’s focus on emergency food access over the past year, they’ve started mobilizing the community around the Food Charter again recently.

And Avni says there are many different ways people in the Bow Valley region can enact it.

“I just met with an Indian couple who’ve started offering a food box program specializing in Indian food. We need more people doing this. And at BVFA, we want to support people doing this kind of thing—building their own food systems.”