BOW VALLEY – The COVID-19 pandemic has brought several struggles to the Bow Valley region.
But it’s also highlighted the many ways the community has come together to help those in need.
While food security issues have always existed, the pandemic has brought its priority to the forefront.
“Since the Bow Valley’s a small community, it’s very good at coming together and doing a lot of little things in their own silos,” said Avni Soma, the president of the Bow Valley Food Alliance (BVFA). “We felt it was important there was one unified voice and during COVID, food security was the issue.”
Soma, who was named to the 23-person Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council to help discuss existing and emerging food issues in the country, said the BVFA formally took shape in 2016 and largely supports small and growing local food producers, ranchers and processors.
On their interactive map, they list 42 food assets in the region. From local gardens, food services and emergency food supports, it’s a sign locals have answered the call.
Soma highlighted the cost of food is the number one issue for residents, many of whom have said they have to choose between food and rent.
During the public hearing for Three Sisters Mountain Village, Soma recommended to Canmore council that any future developments must contribute to community self-sufficiency and local food system resiliency. She also asked all future developers read and sign the food charter, which was developed through public consultations in Banff, Lake Louise, Canmore and Bighorn.
Early in the pandemic, Bow Valley groups received more than $200,000 through a $30 million provincial government funding to help with COVID-19 related impacts.
Canmore's Food and Friends program, Banff Food Rescue, Canmore Meals on Wheels, Spirit North and Stoney Health Services were the local organizations receiving provincial funding.
There are numerous services in the Bow Valley that serve the different communities.
The monthly Good Food Box program serves Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise, and MD of Bighorn for $30, or subsidized at $25. The program aims to give locals access to an assortment of affordable fresh fruits and vegetables once a month.
There are also emergency supports with food banks in Banff, Stoney Nakoda and Canmore, as well as multiple community greenhouses spread throughout the Bow Valley.
Well-established groups such as Banff Food Rescue, Canmore Food and Friends and Meals on Wheels have continued to help during the pandemic.
In 2011 and 2012, the Community Discussion on Poverty forum brought together about 40 organizations and roughly 75 people at St. Michael’s Anglican Church to discuss achievable goals.
Canmore Food and Friends was established, with the goal to provide free food for anyone and have the community come together. Since then, it has served about 90,000 dinners, said Sean Krausert, a co-founder of the group.
He added that pre-pandemic, the height of the program was March 2 when it served meals to 437 people.
Though primarily to help food security issues, it also became a way for people to connect socially and had hundreds of volunteers involved each year.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the group switched from its regular Monday night to a delivery model with The Iron Goat Pub and Grill preparing the food.
“We saw a big influx at the beginning of the pandemic and a lot of new names and new people, it was about financial need,” he said. “Those first few months it was people who were house rich, but income poor because they were laid off or their business was basically halted.”
It returned to a takeout system shortly after Thanksgiving Day while following public health guidelines. Krausert said it tapered off in the summer and levelled off in the fall, but has remained steady at about 200 dinners on Monday nights.
“Most of the people who go to Food and Friends are employed, but the high cost of rent, food and some jobs don’t pay a living wage. They just need a bit of a break,” he said.
While some organizations and programs have a long history, others have sprung up due to the pandemic.
A group of downtown Canmore retailers – The Main Street Canmore Collective – launched the Food for Friends initiative. Starting in early March, it aims to help residents and restaurants by having participating businesses sponsor a restaurant with in-store promotions.
The business then uses a portion of its sales to buy gift cards from the restaurant, which are then given to the Bow Valley Food Bank, which then issues the cards to clients through its food hamper program.
“There’s some businesses who haven’t been impacted as much as others during COVID,” said Mike Gordon, the owner of Stonewaters, a furniture and home décor store in downtown Canmore.
The idea came from a similar concept in Medicine Hat – the 40 Hot Meal Project – that has raised more than $40,000.
Gordon said the new initiative has reached out to businesses in Morley to possibly take part and plan to do so for Banff to make it Bow Valley wide.
“It’s a local initiative that’s helpful and feels good to be able to give back, if even a little bit,” Gordon said.
In Canmore, the Bow Valley Root Cellar was created earlier in the year with help from the BVFA. A community food market will be held from noon to 6 p.m. each Wednesday at the Canmore Senior’s Centre until April 28, with possible plans to continue at a larger venue and outdoors in the summer.
Aida Murias Alcaide, who runs the market, said a volunteer will partner with a vendor each week. As a transaction is being completed, the volunteer will let the customer know the full price and a subsidized price of up to 30 per cent, with financial help coming from BVFA.
The idea allows a customer to help local vendors, but also purchase healthier food options at a more affordable price.
“It is very expensive to live here,” Murias Alcaide said. “Having access to healthy and local food can be difficult, so thanks to the [Bow Valley Food Alliance’s] support it can help.”
She said there are further plans to create a website, allowing for people to shop online from the same market vendors. There are also goals to have special events and workshops to help educate people on food systems.
While locals have stepped up and made food security a priority for Bow Valley residents, the driving force remains the expense of living in the region.
“There’s a lot of great initiatives. Those initiatives are needed because the issue is systemic here,” Krausert said. “It’s the high cost of living that is driving the high demand for some assistance.”