Bow Valley Food Alliance (BVFA): Bow Valley Recipe Exchange

Norben cooking Filipino bami noodles as part of the Recipe Exchange initiative.
Norben cooking Filipino bami noodles as part of the Recipe Exchange initiative.


The Bow Valley Recipe Exchange project was developed in collaboration with the Bow Valley Food Alliance (BVFA) and Bow Valley Immigration Partnership (BVIP). The project was implemented between November 2020 and July 2021. The projects’ main objective was to meet residents and exchange stories of cultures, share experiences and knowledge about food from around the world. To build empathy and cross-cultural connection during the pandemic. The secondary objective was to highlight and support community champions and business owners who were involved in food security initiatives for their ethno-cultural groups.

The main stakeholders/partners involved are:

  • Bow Valley Food Alliance (BVFA): is a network of community-based agencies, organizations and individuals who are committed to creating local food systems that are healthy, socially just, collaborative, diverse and accessible. The BVFA covers the regions of Lake Louise, Banff, Canmore, MD of Bighorn and Stoney Nakoda Nations. BVFA provides funding to community organizations like FORM.
  • Bow Valley Immigration Partnership (BVIP): is a collaborative community initiative dedicated to improving immigrant integration in the Bow Valley. BVIP brings together stakeholders from the communities of Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise, Kananaskis, and Western M.D. of Bighorn to develop and implement a coordinated integration strategy for the region.
  • Town of Banff: Town of Banff provides staffing, time, space and financial resources. It is the fiscal host of BVFA and provides funding for BVFA programs. The Town of Banff administration and Council adopted the Food Charter in September 2021.
  • Community Connections: Supports newcomers in the Bow Valley. Has worked closely with BVFA in putting together community lunches and dinners.
  • Filipino Organization of the Rocky Mountains (FORM): Works with BVFA and Community Connections to develop food related programs for the community.


In 2017, the Town of Banff Community Development Coordinator in collaboration with Community Connections (part of Settlement Services) developed a series of community meals. The Town of Banff provided the space and staff to invite and facilitate ethno-cultural groups and individuals to host community meals. Each community meal would focus on a specific culture that is represented in Banff. It was important to showcase different cultures in the community as about 34% of the Banff population is foreign born. These lunches showcased several cultures including Azerbaijani, Japanese, Filipino, Tibetan, East Indian, Chilean, Ethiopian/ Eritrean, Indigenous, Syrian, and French. Once the first two meals were hosted, other ethnocultural groups approached the Town of Banff, demonstrating interest to host the next meal. A meal was hosted about every 2 months.

Community meals created an opportunity for people to get to know their neighbours; to share stories, learn about each other’s cultures, experience the amazing talents and skills each culture has; and it provided support to newcomers and demonstrate that they have a right to be seen and that they are of equal value in the community.

The main challenge of the project was that many community members were worried and fearful that:

  • their food would not be “good enough”
  • there will be low turnouts and low levels of participation
  • guests will not like the food
  • the community would judge them based on what they experienced at the event.

Despite the worries and fears, the community meals were a great success. Every meal was “sold out” and there was a demand to make room for more people. The hosting cultures felt celebrated. Newcomers reported having a sense of belonging and feeling more connected to their community.

A pot steaming momos, Momos, Tibetan steamed dumplings, prepared by Tenzin.
Momos, Tibetan steamed dumplings, prepared by Tenzin.


From community meals to recipe exchange

The success of community meals sparked community groups to ask, “what more can we do?”. Along with numerous requests from community members for the recipes, the Bow Valley Recipe Exchange was born. The Recipe Exchange was the perfect project to continue the work of bringing people of all backgrounds together around food.

The initial idea was to develop a recipe book. The COVID-19 pandemic presented the opportunity to transform the project into an online space. The Bow Valley Food Alliance Coordinator reached out to different community members, asking if they would be interested sharing recipes and being filmed. At first there was some hesitation on the community members’ part, owing to their lack of confidence in their ability to communicate in English. Employees at the BVFA and the BVIP coached the community members through the process, which in turn encouraged the participants to share their recipes and culture and showcase diversity in the Bow Valley. The cooks were offered honorariums for their time and knowledge. A recipe book was also developed.

Four short videos were created of community members demonstrating a typical meal from:

  • Philippines: Chef Norben Sayon is a restaurant owner and FORM member representing the Filipino community
  • Tibet: Tenzin Palzon representing a small informal group of Tibetan refugees
  • Syria: Chef Diane Alhelou- Caterer representing the Ottoman states
  • Japan: Junko Kitahama- representing the Japanese community.

You can find all the videos here and here.

You can find the recipe book here.

The videos, all less than 10 minutes, were shared on the BVIP and BVFA online platforms as well as YouTube and other social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The Bow Valley Recipe Exchange highlights that every cultural community has leaders. For them to thrive and lead their communities, they require support. During the early months of the pandemic, food insecurity across ethnocultural groups in the Bow Valley increased significantly. Community organizations were working informally to find ways to support each other such as getting donations (both food and financial) and organizing food drives. The role of the BVFA and BVIP was to provide knowledge and access to funding and resources. These early connections and capacity building in part lead to the success of the Recipe Exchange.

The filming was done in a commercial kitchen leased by the BVFA, which also procured the ingredients, and coordinated the filming team. During filming the cooks answered questions on the relationship between their food and culture as well as the actual techniques of cooking. Afterwards, the filmmakers and BVIP coordinator edited the videos.


The main challenge was the time needed to develop trusting relationships with community members. As Jill Harrison put it: “This project became the epicentre of many years of community development work around food.” It built on past community meals and relationships built during the pandemic. BVFA approach is to work with a community-based decision-making model. This model was underpinned by a written agreement between the BVFA and BVIP.

While the BVFA and BVIP initiated the idea, it was led by the participants. They decided how the project would manifest itself. The BVFA and BVIP provided the financial resources and access to the film crew and commercial kitchen. Otherwise, the community members took lead on the project. This project has since inspired an Ethiopian community member to get a community grant so they can make their own video.

Chef Paul Esmeria, a local Filipino chef volunteering and preparing meals at a local community event.



The project gave marginalized groups visibility, a sense of belonging, and a boost to their confidence. At the start of the pandemic some individuals didn’t want to be seen and were afraid that if they asked for help, they would lose their residency status. The Recipe Exchange project gave them the confidence to be visible and allowed them to see themselves as valuable members of the community.

One of the participants had already been working on overcoming food insecurity. His appearance on the video boosted his reputation and in turn his restaurant. The success of the videos which were posted on BVFA Facebook page made participants feel they were instant local celebrities.

To date one received 3,900 views and others are more than 2,000 hits. Compared to other BVFA other videos, it’s three to tenfold. The project also raised the BVFA’s profile. BVFA recently recruited staff members and the Recipe Exchange was the number one project the candidates referred to when asked about BVFA’s work.

While it was never the goal, the project led to numerous conversations about food system challenges and vulnerabilities. BVIP is now looking at how to measure culture empathy resulting from the project. Conversations are now ongoing between BVIP, BVFA and the Indigenous Program Manager at the Whyte Museum to explore further recipe exchange opportunities.

BVFA has recently received $75,000 for a project to meet the food needs of equity seeking people. This new project was funded partially because of tangible success of recipe exchange.

Lessons Learned

The first lesson that we have learned is build trust

It’s all about one-on-one relationships. The BVFA coordinator established trust because she is a person with a face and name.


The importance of having multiple stakeholders working together in a horizontal partnership. The relationship cannot be agency to client, rather person to person, group to group. By everyone working together the systemic barriers were mitigated.

The project itself must be led by community members. Stakeholders need to be aligned on the planned outcome. Keep at arms length from government bodies as some ethnocultural groups are nervous in their realm. The BVIP and BVFA are one step removed from the municipality. As such, newcomers did not feel that they were working with the government.

Learn about the community by reading locally produced reports and undertake research, such as community social assessments or community plans based on community consultations. Spend time reaching out to communities to ask what’s important and be prepared to listen.

A long table of food in front of a mountain.One of the local community events organized by the Bow Valley Recipe Food Alliance.

Language and cultural understanding

There is the need to reassure people; allowing them to rehearse what they will say. Also, on a broader scale with the recommendation of BVIP, BVFA put out food security information in multiple languages. It gave groups confidence that BVFA was intentional and sincere.

Include community cultural and language interpreters. Community Connections and the BVFA coordinator worked closely with Ethiocare who could act as “charity interpreters”. Having cultural experts adds layers of safety in the eyes of the immigrants, who never feel they are working directly with government agencies.

Listening without judgement. During the early months of the pandemic the Bow Valley Food Alliance’s approach with FORM was to listen. This enabled BVFA to learn the group’s vision, and what it needed from BVFA. Having a trusting relationship enabled the two groups to overcome hurdles, the biggest being the signing of a funding agreement. FORM was wary of official documents. However, the Bow Valley Food Alliance was able to alleviate these concerns, in part to the trust that had been established.

You might veer off your mandate, but think of the end result.

…flexibility is crucial. Because of the pandemic, community members started growing their own food.

The project in itself is not the answer it’s all the work that has led to the project

Meet people and groups in places that are most comfortable and convenient for them. Breaking down barriers necessitates talking to newcomers in times they are available, on platforms they use like Facebook Messenger. They are typically working multiple jobs, over 7 days per week.


Individuals who are closest to the problem often know how best to solve it. However, they are often the furthest away from resources. It is crucial to bridge that gap. Grassroots organizations had no idea that they were eligible for funding.

Funders have implemented portals for the grant writing process. This is a barrier for grassroots groups who do not have the capacity or skillset to navigate. The BVFA chose to support these groups by writing grant applications using the community groups’ authentic voices and their way to explain the issue at hand. The system must hear the language of the people it is supposed to be serving. The funding available reflected outdated assumptions of people’s needs. The applicants were “told” what they should be applying for. Forcing groups to apply for support they don’t want or need, denies food sovereignty and right to choose for themselves.

Funder reporting templates and output metrics are not the reason for the grassroots groups’ existence. It is important to remove barriers so they can do what they do best and contribute to their community. Expecting them to write reports at a high literacy level is unrealistic and unnecessary. The BVFA asked for minimal reporting, instead looking for pictures and quotes, BVFA then helped to write the final reports.

The Town of Banff acted as a fiscal host for the funds that came into the BVFA which they in turn made available to grassroots groups. This was easy to justify as the Town of Banff’s strategic plan includes food security. Food security groups need to lobby municipalities and relate their projects back to the municipality’s strategic plan.

Respect time and knowledge

Have paid positions and put community members in them. Hire new comers as consultants to have conversations with community, develop recommendations, and test out these recommendations in pilot programs. BVFA used ‘Market Bucks’ (a local currency developed by BVFA) to reward community members for their time. They can use the ‘market bucks’ on local food products and recreational activities relating to food in the Bow Valley.

Understand broader trends and issues

Establish a relationship with pan-Canadian food system and food sovereignty networks such as Food Communities Network and Community Food Centres of Canada. Follow the work of the newly established Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council. Many scholars and academics are now researching food systems and food sovereignty in the context of global systems. Their research may be useful in developing sustainable and successful programs. Get broader buy-in from every level of government responsible. Establish a conversation on building up food systems from ground-up, focusing on the needs of the community.

Tenizn stands in a kitchen behind a counter full of fresh food.
Tibetan steamed dumplings as part of the Recipe Exchange initiative.


Tenzin was born in India in exile to two Tibetan parents. She came to Canada in 2015 as part of the Tibetan project. Tenzin is from a mountainous town in India and worked as a cook and cleaner in a monastery perched high up on a hill. She describes working in the monastery as bringing her great joy.

Her sponsor identified a potential employer -the Banff Centre (a retreat for artists, sitting high on a hill, among the rocky mountains). It seemed to be the perfect fit.

At the same time there were 10 other Tibetan refugees placed at a large hotel on the other side of town. They did not know each other and furthermore they did not know there were 2 groups of refugees placed in the Bow Valley both from locally situated villages back home.

The Settlement Services team had heard these refugees were afraid to go out, were not leaving their staff accommodations and were completely unknown to the rest of the community.

By getting to know Tenzin, we learned she showed a quiet courage. She had already related to the Shoe Project (a travelling spoken art installation where foreign-born women tell the story of how they came to Canada and the impact of a pair of shoes – see on youtube “A perfect fit” by Tenzin Palzom). We realized that she would be a quiet but forceful leader. She agreed to coordinate and lead the other Tibetans in hosting a community meal around the traditional favorite food “momos”.

Tenzin was modest and worried that no one would want to come to try their food, and if they did what if they didn’t like it? On the day, the crowds lined up outside the community hall in anticipation for a taste of momos.

There are many climbers in the Bow Valley and during their trips to Nepal/ Kathmandu momos were a staple. There was a lot of excitement as people shared stories of their mountain adventures and fond memories of the tasty dumplings.

The meal was a huge success; there was singing, dancing, tears of joy and everyone was asking “how did we not know there were Tibetans among us? And how do I get the recipe?”

The Tibetan community lunch was one of the most memorable of all the cultural lunches for many reasons. It brought the Tibetans together for the first time, it introduced them to the rest of the community and placed them firmly in everyone’s hearts. They were no longer hidden and their food was spoken of frequently. Tenzin is now a recognizable local, confidently walking around town.

Fast forward to 2020 and Tenzin was an obvious choice for the recipe exchange project. She modestly and graciously accepted the challenge of demonstrating how to make the labour-intensive dumplings in front of the camera.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough for everyone in hospitality in Banff. Tenzin was laid off from her beloved mountain top job. So she worked with the BVFA to connect with all the Tibetans again who had dispersed to different locations around the Bow Valley in search of work, to organize the distribution of grocery cards.

She is still optimistic and looking forward to getting rehired when everything opens again. Tenzin is a thoughtful and appreciative woman; while she admits getting used to the weather and Canadian food has been hard, she is in awe of Banff’s raw beauty and says she feels at home.

In the meantime she has lots of time to make more delicious momos!

The largest foreign born group in Banff is the Filipino community. They are the backbone of the hospitality industry, working in many of the essential jobs that make tourism tick.

A relationship-based culture, they are proud of their heritage, their food and their celebrations. They want to share their gifts with the wider community and do so in a spirit of generosity. Used to working together as a collective in their home country, coming to Banff can be quite isolating and challenging. They work long hours with unpredictable schedules and work hard to capture moments to gather around food.

One of those newcomers, Jun Cacayuran decided to set up an informal group to explore what cultural activities they could organize. Starting with a community Christmas party (supported by the Town of Banff) this group went on to formalize and become the Filipino Organization of the Rocky Mountains (FORM). The Town of Banff (specifically Community Development) and local Settlement Services supported the party by offering the space, helped them apply for funding and offered support throughout the entire process.

Since their inception they have worked in the community and with the Bow Valley Food Alliance (BVFA) to put on many food based cultural events, and this included community lunches and dinners. Over the past year during the pandemic, the BVFA has worked closely with them providing them funding, so they can organize appropriate food supports for their diaspora. They are outstanding role models and have been an inspiration to many other community groups. Filipinos in neighboring communities have looked to them for guidance and mentorship. This led to an active collective in Canmore where a Filipino restaurant was used as a COVID-19 response food hub. With the help of funding from the BVFA they organized distribution of food hampers and prepared meals to frontline health workers and local families with sick children. Norben Sayon, a chef and owner of Quattro Asian Bistro and a who close friend of Jun, also participated in the Bow Valley Recipe Exchange.

COVID 19 has highlighted the need for grass roots groups to be supported and show cased. They have demonstrated how food brings everyone together through the good and difficult times. We are looking forward to continuing our working relationship with all the diverse communities of the Bow Valley and can’t wait to share some more stories in the future.

Notes: The following narrative is based on several interviews conducted with Jill Harrison, Community Development Coordinator, Town of Banff and Board Member Bow Valley Food Alliance (BVFA), Natasha Lay Communications and Outreach specialist Bow Valley Immigration Partnership (BVIP), Jun Cacayuran Founder of the Filipino Organization of the Rocky Mountains (FORM) and Tenzin Palzom who represents the Tibetan community in the Bow Valley.

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