Inspired by the farm to school Learning Circle model, in March of 2022, the Let’s Gather! event hosted in Canmore, AB encouraged community members in the Bow Valley to connect and spark dialogue around local and resilient food systems by exploring this theme through the lens of school food. This post shares what inspired the event, what was shared and learned, and next steps on the path to transforming school food in the Bow Valley. 

About the Bow Valley
An area that might be best known for its snow sports and picturesque location nestled in the Rocky Mountains – and not a long growing season –  a thriving local food scene may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Alberta’s Bow Valley. That’s changing thanks to a group of dedicated community members, farmers and other local food producers: there is increasing awareness and interest in the community to foster a resilient local food system that is socially and ecologically just. 
The Bow Valley is a region in southwestern Alberta, located along the upper Bow River on Treaty 7 territory, the traditional lands of the Îyârhe Nakoda (Stoney Nakoda) – comprised of the Bearspaw First Nation, Chiniki First Nation, and Goodstoney First Nation – as well as the Tsuut’ina First Nation and the Blackfoot Confederacy comprised of the Siksika, Piikani, Kainai. This territory is home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, within the historical Northwest Métis homeland. This includes what is today called, Canmore, Banff, Kananaskis, Lake Louise and other small towns.
As cited by the Bow Valley College, the name “Bow” refers to reeds that grow on the banks of the river, traditionally used to make bows.

Comprised of a number of small towns, the Bow Valley’s largest, Canmore, is home to a population of about 16,000 people, 17% of which are children and youth age 0-19 (2021 Census Profile). The population has been steadily growing over the past decade and, according to the Let’s Gather! event organizer, Avni Soma, in addition to population growth the demographic also appears to be changing, becoming increasingly diverse with more BIPOC  (black, Indigenous and other people of colour) food producers. For Avni, there is a spiritual draw to the mountains that led her to the region, and she believes that this quiet but powerful pull draws others to the area, too. 

Local food and food security in the Bow Valley 

When it comes to growing food, according to Canada’s Plant Hardiness Zones, the Bow Valley hovers between Zone 2 and Zone 3, meaning winters can bring some of the coldest temperatures in the country. With the use of row covers and hoop houses, though, a typical growing season can run from April through October and many school and community gardens are thriving. For example, the communities of Banff, Canmore and Exshaw have active community gardens and some local organizations, like the Canmore Community Gardening Society, provide space for locals to grow their own food. In addition to cultivated crops, there is increasing interest among residents in hunting and foraging in the local mountain spaces for traditional foods and medicines that grow in the region, including wild strawberries, wild onions, juniper and other berries, rose hips, fireweed, spruce tips, and much more. 

Canmore Community Gardening Society (CCGS)

The need to support a robust, resilient and accessible local food system is underscored by food insecurity in the region. Canmore has the highest living wage in the province at $37.40 per hour according to a 2021 report, with food being reported as the third highest household expense. According to a 2015 Alberta Health Services report, monthly household food costs are about 8% higher than the provincial average.  

Organizations like the Bow Valley Food Alliance (BVFA), an organization of passionate citizens and professionals in the region dedicated to food security, are working to help address this and to realize a vision for community-based food system that supports the health and wellbeing of residents for generations to come. The BVFA’s leadership has led to the development of the Bow Valley Food Charter which has set a collective vision “to create community-based food systems that are equitable and ecologically regenerative. In doing so, we aim to build food sovereignty for all of the diverse communities in the Bow Valley from Lake Louise to Banff to Canmore to Municipal District of Bighorn to the Îyârhe Nakoda Nation.”

Local food in schools
Alpine Edibles – Christian in garden

Schools are at the heart of our communities and serve as a great place to catalyze broader food system transformation. With a number of community champions, like BVFA, and others already working to create food literacy opportunities and get local food in schools, the Bow Valley is an ideal location for a Farm to School Learning Circle, a coordinated process to build, strengthen and expand collective farm to school activity within a community. A strong foundation for connecting students to the local food system was laid in the last 10 years through Alpine Edible School Yards. This non-profit urban farm (Canmore’s first!) began as a quarter-acre farm on school ground and soon piqued interest of the school community.  It served as a space where teachers could bring students for hands-on learning, and project lead, Christian Wright – better known as “Farmer Christian” – provided support to educators by helping them to make curriculum connections for students. Eventually, this transitioned into a part-time position for Christian with the school board, helping to fill gaps in educator capacity.

Listen to Christian share a bit about this transition in the clip below:

“There are a lot of great pieces in place in the Bow Valley and it’s just a matter of strengthening it and having more capacity within the community and sharing their skills whether it’s gardening, cooking. The matter of climate – ways to extend the growing season into the school year.” – Christian Wright, the Bow Valley’s first Mountain Farmer and educator with Alpine Edible School Yards

In the winter of 2022 when the opportunity was presented to convene community members around the topic of school food, community engager and local food advocate, Avni Soma, was keen to bring people together around this topic.  The Let’s Gather event was born. 

To plan the event, Avni reached out to a number of school community members and food system actors in the region to inform the agenda. Throughout this process several goals emerged that helped shape the event, from the venue and when it took place, to the agenda and who would attend. These goals included:

  1. Grounding it in time and place, honouring the lands and traditions of the Îyârhe Nakoda people, and the changing of the seasons. 
  2. Being open to attendance by school community members of all schools in the region. Invitations went to the Conseil Scolaire FrancoSud, the Catholic school board, Canadian Rockies Public Schools and the Morley Community School, located on the Stoney Reserve. 
  3. Being kid friendly. Afterall, what’s a conversation about school food in community, without its young people?
  4. Providing opportunities for in-person connections. Food is a powerful connector, and after 2 years of disrupted social connection, what better way to reconnect than over a shared meal?
  5. Serving food from local food providers. Discussing local food systems, offering food that supported a diversity of caterers from the region was also a must.
  6. Providing an opportunity for education and conversation to spark further action in the community around school food and food literacy.
Let’s Gather: Event Summary & Impact

Heading into the spring, after multiple waves of COVID-19 lock down, there was an opportunity and interest from the community to gather in-person and reconnect over shared food, story and experience.  Let’s Gather! was hosted on March 25th, 2022 to coincide with the Vernal Equinox and community members were invited to join a 3-hour event, either in part or in whole, which featured:

  • A dialogue on school food.
  • Film screening of GATHER, a documentary film that “explores the fight to revitalize native foodways”. 
  • A conversation with Sharon Firth, member of the Gwich’in First Nation, residential school survivor and former member of Canada’s women’s cross-country ski team.

Hosted at artsPlace in Canmore, with a total of 80 event tickets sold, 25 people attended the school food dialogue and 65 joined for the screening of Gather and conversation that followed with Sharon Firth. A variety of people attended, including racially diverse members of the community and families (including kids under 10) parents, teachers, school administrators, chefs, urban farmers, community members and more. 

Opening remarks were provided by Dr. Lauren Kepkiewicz a researcher and resident of the Bow Valley whose work examines food sovereignty in the nearby mountain communities, with a focus on the Bow Valley. Lauren uses food as a lens to understand how people and places relate to one another, including the ways that different communities build alliances across difference, challenge structures of oppression and work to create transformative food system change. 

“… food has played a role in the colonization of Indigenous lands and Nations, we know that there have been hunger experiments conducted on children in residential schools, we know that colonial agricultural policies were designed to confine Indigenous Nations on reserves and that these policies were designed specifically and intentionally for these purposes. But at the same time, food and education have been used by Indigenous Nations to reassert Indigenous ways of living, of learning and of being. And we see this in Indigenous Food Sovereignty movements, in Indigenous land-based learning programs, and the intergenerational transfer of knowledge within Indigenous communities world-wide.”

Listen to Dr. Kepkiewicz’s full land acknowledgement from the event (4:58 min):

School Food Dialogue

The school food dialogue of Lets Gather! was a panel discussion with 4 community members and school food champions, including:

Christian Wright: a mountain farmer and food systems educator best known to kids in the Bow Valley as “Farmer Christian.” He is the founder of the non-profit, Alpine Edible Schoolyards, involving 2 school gardens, urban farming and greenhouses and is credited with being among the first to demonstrate that it is possible to successfully grow local produce in the Bow Valley. Alpine Edible Schoolyards ran from 2013-2021 and, thanks to its success, Christian became employed as a teacher with the Canadian Rockies Public Schools with a specific focus on connecting science curriculum to gardening and farming. In 2021 he relocated to Ontario, but his positive influence and relationships in the valley remain strong.

Kyle Maier a member of the Bow Valley community since 2004, Kyle works as chef at Rocky Mountain Flatbread, a pizza and pasta restaurant focused on using locally sourced ingredients. In addition to his role at the restaurant, since September 2021 Kyle and his partner have been running the lunch program at Our Lady of the Snows Academy, a K-12 school in Canmore. Through this experience, they have learned a lot about preparing and serving children food at school. 

Delphine Pugniet Originally from France, Delphine is a young female farmer who has been living in the Bow Valley for 7 years. She is passionate about growing local food for the residents of her community and now shares her mountain produce with locally-owned and operated restaurants. The Let’s Gather! panel was her first time speaking in public! 

Deb Sellers is a teacher at Canmore Collegiate High School, teaching food studies to grade 9-12 students. Deb features local ingredients in her classes whenever available with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand increased for the pay-what-you-can breakfast program sponsored by local community groups and businesses.

The panel was facilitated by Michelle Backhouse, Alliance Coordinator at BVFA. Event attendees included parents, students, teachers, administrators and others interested in school food. All were invited to listen, learn and share their own thoughts and ideas using white boards and sticky notes placed around the room. Here’s some of what was shared:

On why school food is important:

On what food literacy means:

On a vision for school food programs in the Bow Valley:

When asked to envision what school food could look like in the Bow Valley, the following key themes emerged:

  • Teaching kids how to grow food, both outdoors and indoors (ex. Tower gardens).
  • Making connections between what’s grown at school, and what’s served…even if it’s only small. (ex. Using lettuces grown in sandwiches, or herbs to make pesto)
  • Incorporating more wild foods
  • More partnerships 

Shared meal

The food at Let’s Gather! Showcased the catering of chef Damian at Mountain Fire Foods including dishes like:

  • Cured salmon tartare with fennel crème fraiche and popped wild rice
  • Bison meatballs with smoked salt and rhubarb Dijon jam
  • Elk skewers with charred peppers and wild herb chimichurri
  • Sweet blue corn bread with saskatoon berry wojapi
Cured salmon tartare with fennel crème fraiche and popped wild rice

“…I am a proud Indigenous man, father to three amazing kids and partner to an even more amazing lady! When not in the kitchen I can be found adventuring with the family or getting in a solid workout at the gym. I am a firm believer in fuelling my body with the right foods to suit any adventure and am super passionate about providing this service to others. Less time cooking equals more time doing what you love…I happen to love cooking” – Damian Liengme, Chef/Owner at Mountain Fire Foods


Other small, locally owned and operated catering business featured at the event included:

  • Aromas Kitchen – Chef Jose was born and raised in a Mexican and Spanish traditional family with strong culinary roots. He offers catering and cooking classes featuring from-scratch health-conscious meals in the Valley. 
  • Rinku’s Sspice – Rinku’s Sspice was born from the passion to introduce Indian cuisine in an authentic way and to make it accessible to all. 
  • EPICanmore – local bakery and coffee shop using organic, locally grown and milled grains and antient methods of fermentation.
Catering from EPICanmore

Film Screening & Conversation with Sharon Firth

The screening of the documentary, followed by conversation with Sharon Firth came about through the desire to spark conversation in the community about reconciliation through school food. Asked about this, Avni shares,

“As a person of colour, there are all these pulls – layers of intersectionality – that I can’t do anything else but learn more, and what can we do? I want my kids to know the true history of this land. I grew up in such a white-centred society – I don’t want that for them.”  

Let’s Gather! Organizer Avni, an avid recreational nordic skier herself, connected with Sharon on the trails “because of our shared brown skin.” Avni shares that “Sharon Auntie is now part of our family and we are learning more of her food stories over time. And it is influencing how the school food program is being set up at our school!”

Following the Gather documentary screening, Sharon spoke about her own relationship with food as both an athlete and Indigenous woman, sharing stories and knowledge with the audience and inviting them to reflect on their own relationships with food and reconciliation. 

“When my 98 year old cousin goes to gatherings and there are lots of white people, they are not aware of other cultures in the room because they are so busy talking that if you try to get a word in, they cut you off. So she only shares this wisdom with our family and other community members…we all have so many gems, you just have to give your head a shake and all your gems are going to flow out. But you can only hear them if you are listening.” – Sharon Firth

Sharon Firth is a Canadian former cross-country skier who competed in the Winter Olympics in 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984. Firth’s mother was Gwich’in and her father was Métis. She and her twin sister, Shirley,  grew up in the Gwich’in First Nation. They were the first female Indigenous athletes to compete for Canada in the Winter Olympic Games. From 1968 to 1985, Sharon and Shirley Firth were both members of Canada’s national cross-country team, competing in 4 Olympic Winter Games and obtaining a total of 79 medals at the national championships. As a young girl, Sharon lived in a traditional home made of hide and spruce bows, and lived off the land, trapping and foraging until about the age of 5. Then, the family was forced to move from Aklavik to Inuvik and then she attended residential school which drastically altered how she experienced food and culture. 

Looking to share more about Sharon and Shirley Firth with kids? Check out this episode of CBC’s show,  Molly of Denali. 

What attendees had to say about Let’s Gather!

In a post event survey, 100% off respondents shared they were eager to continue the conversation and attend similar events in the future. 

“ …hugely instructive, very moving and completely inspirational. Sharon was amazing, we really enjoyed the movie, and the food dialogue was great.” 

“I think that having a school lunch program that is available to all of the schools in the region would be great. It would be amazing if this lunch program got kids into the kitchen, and sourced foods locally and organically. It would also be great if this program taught kids about food inequities, where food comes from, and food movements. It would also be interesting to use school food programs as a way to celebrate diverse cultural foods.”

“…I attended the Gather showing at ArtsPlace a few months ago that BVFA hosted, and left absolutely buzzing about the idea of starting a community led cafe… that doubles as a space for learning about Indigenous food sovereignty, similar to the one in the film.”

What’s next? 
Learning Circle in the Comox Valley, BC

Let’s Gather! was inspired by the farm to school Learning Circle model, and was intended to ignite a spark for a full Learning Circle in the region. Learning Circles typically take place over the course of 18 months as a coordinated process to build, strengthen and expand collective farm or local food to school efforts within a community. In this process, individuals, school representatives and organizations across the local food system come together to create a common vision and identify short term goals unique to the community’s needs.  Let’s Gather! was just the beginning and communities in the Bow Valley now have an opportunity to continue the momentum by convening to define next steps, build on strengths and begin to address barriers to get fresh, local and sustainable food on the minds and plates of all children and youth in the region. 

If you’d like to see a Learning Circle happen in the Bow Valley and are interested in being involved or supporting it to come to life, please Avni Soma at  

Special thanks to Avni Soma for her vision and leadership in bringing Let’s Gather! to life and to the guest speakers, local caterers, artsPlace and the Bow Valley Food Alliance, all of whom helped make the event a success. Finally, special thanks to the community members who participated, sharing their time, ideas and energy.