In documentary, Yukon family skips grocery shopping for an entire year

Queen’s alum documents mission to eat only locally produced food

Suzanne Crocker overlooks Dawson City, Yukon.
Still from "First We Eat"

One of the many problems COVID-19 has brought to attention is our troubled relationship with food. Queen’s alum and doctor-turned-filmmaker Suzanne Crocker, however, was confronted with this fraught relationship long before the pandemic hit.

The pandemic has emptied shelves, increased the amount of first-time food bank users, shut down restaurants, and exacerbated eating disorders. It’s transformed the humble grocery store trip into a significant event and turned baking into a hobby so popular that stores ran out of flour and yeast when the pandemic first started.

Crocker, the director of First We Eat, first witnessed the fragility of our food supply chain several years ago. She lives in Dawson City, where 97 per cent of the food supply is trucked in. In 2012, the only road in and out of the Yukon territory was blocked for several days by a landslide.

Grocery stores were empty within 48 hours. 

“A hundred or so years ago, Dawson used to produce 97 per cent of its food. Prior to colonization, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and other Indigenous folks in the North ate 100 per cent locally,” Crocker said in an interview with The Journal. “I thought it would be really good to know whether it could be done again in this era.”

She decided to only eat locally sourced food for an entire year and to document the journey. According to Crocker, it’s easier said than done.

Crocker, her husband, and their three children—aged 11, 15, and 17 at the time—could only eat what was hunted, foraged, or grown in and around Dawson, which is only 300km south of the Arctic Circle.

She captured her family’s journey in the film First We Eat, which premiered at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival last week. The documentary shows viewers how the Crocker family acquired their meals for a year starting in August 2017.

On top of learning to cook, garden, and lead her family through their year-long experiment, Crocker is also the producer, director, and cinematographer of the film.

Like the food, the film was produced entirely in the North with local talent. Post-production was kept within Canada.

“You can’t be on both sides of the camera at the same time,” Crocker said of the experience, laughing. But she added a camera crew wouldn’t always be available, so filming everything herself allowed her to capture their entire journey.

It also meant her family felt comfortable enough to express their frustration at the amount of labour needed to feed themselves.

As the documentary goes on, however, viewers watch Crocker’s family become accustomed to their new diet as they find ways to acquire more food. That included reaching out to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation and local farmers.

“We combined food from the land and food that could be cultivated and raised here,” she said, differentiating cultivation from hunting and foraging. “Though my combining of those two things is different from the historical way [of nomadic Northern Indigenous communities], it’s very similar and in parallel to what the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in today are doing.”

Considering plant-based proteins can be grown further South, something Dawson’s farmers still haven’t replicated, Southerners could have an easier time eating locally than Northerners.

“In the summer, most folks can imagine eating more local because of farmer’s markets. But in the winter, everyone just flips back to whatever’s in the store, regardless of where it comes from,” Crocker said.

“Part of it is having the systems in place [...] and part of it is changing our expectations and realizing we don’t have to have, you know, a fresh strawberry in January. What sense does that make? It doesn’t even taste like a strawberry.”

Crocker understands the need for convenience, however. “Would it make more sense to go to the frozen food section for broccoli in January and buy locally grown broccoli that was flash frozen, rather than fresh broccoli from Mexico or Chile?”

Three years after their experiment ended, she and her family are still mostly eating local foods. 

“All our vegetables year-round are local. Our milk, our eggs, all of our dairy is 100 per cent local,” Crocker said. Her diet is now around 90-95 per cent local, while her family is less stringent at 70-75 per cent. The difference for Crocker is the reintroduction of staples like oil, vinegar, and baking powder. For her family, it’s out-of-season fruit and premade items like bagels they couldn’t eat during the making of the film.

“I still make my own yogurt, I still make my own cheese, I still make butter, I still make ice cream, but all of those things have a routine to them [because] I know what I’m doing,” Crocker said. “To make the butter, we don’t shake the jar for hours on end anymore, we use a Vitamix blender.”

This lasting impact on their relationship with food became more relevant during the pandemic.

“I thought, ‘wow, I don’t even need to go to the store,’” Crocker said of her reaction to others hoarding during lockdown. “That was a very comforting feeling.”

But the effects of the climate crisis threaten this comfort. 

“The growing season may expand [due to climate change], but it’s also going to come with pests we don’t deal with right now […] It’s going to come with drought,” she said.

“Nobody used to eat chum [salmon in Dawson] and now it’s the only salmon we get, because the king [salmon] are gone. And this year, for the first time in anybody’s memory, there were no chum.”

The film’s title was taken from a quote by M.F.K. Fisher: “First we eat, then we do everything else.”

Watching farmers—especially in the North—struggle to produce healthy food, the film’s title changes in meaning. Eating comes first, but so much work happens before that meal lands on the plate.

The Kingston Canadian Film Festival is entirely digital this year. All programming is available online until March 7.

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