The Current

This Yukon woman wanted to live off local food for a year. That meant getting her teenagers on board

Suzanne Crocker's new film, First We Eat, explores her year-long experiment in eating only food produced locally in the Yukon — and how she got her family on board.

Suzanne Crocker explores year-long local eating experiment in new film First We Eat

Suzanne Crocker, second from right, wanted to eat only food grown locally in the Yukon, but that meant getting her husband Gerard and three children, Sam (left), Kate and Tess, to agree. (Submitted by Hélène Roth)

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Suzanne Crocker spent a year living on food produced only in her local area of Dawson City, Yukon, but one of the biggest challenges was getting her husband and three teens on board.

"I like to say they were conscripted, but I wish it was that easy," said Crocker, whose film about the year-long experiment, First We Eat, is airing online at the Hot Docs festival this week.

"They actually put up some resistance for quite a while," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The experiment involved swearing off any food not produced locally — no caffeine, no citrus fruit, no grocery store shopping at all — and instead relying on local farmers, as well as producing and preserving what she could at home.

Crocker got the idea after a landslide blocked roads a few years ago, stopping food from reaching import-reliant Dawson City. As supermarket shelves quickly emptied, she wondered how people in the region had survived in the past, and decided the best way to find out "would be just to actually try it."

"Suzanne has a reputation for coming up with interesting ideas — she's not really a comfort seeker," said her husband Gerard Parsons, adding how for a previous film, Crocker moved the family into Yukon's backwoods for nine months.

"We've learnt just to follow suit, really," he said.

Their three children, Sam, Kate and Tess — aged 17, 15 and 12 at the time of filming in 2017/2018 — weren't so sure.

"I was very unenthused," said Sam. "I was a teenager and growing and I had a big appetite." 

His sisters shared his reservations, but ultimately Tess said it felt like "it wasn't much of a choice." 

They had to go without staples such as oil, vinegar, baking powder and spices, and luxury items like chocolate, avocados, bananas and "all that grab-and-go food, which was especially a big deal for the kids — no peanut butter, no bagels," Crocker said.

Crocker has turned her family's experiment into a documentary airing online at the Hot Docs festival. (Supplied)

She had her own reservations, even bursting into tears at the start of the experiment during her last cup of tea, her "comfort drink."

"The idea of no comfort drink and no caffeine really struck home on that last sip, and a year felt like a really long time at that point." 

Dad lost 30 lb. in 2 months

Crocker said the first weeks and months were difficult as they adjusted to shortages, down to the most basic ingredients she needed to prepare meals.

"You need butter? Well, you have to have thought of that in advance, because you actually have to make your own butter," she told Galloway.

"That was a bit anxiety provoking, just to think: 'OK, can I actually physically gather enough?'" she said.

'I was feeling weak and incapable really of keeping up with my metabolism and the demands of my body- Gerard Parsons

Parsons said the whole family became involved in "processing food, and helping chop and freeze vegetables and so on."

"Food as a nutrient was really put on the back burner for a little while, in preference for food to be stored."

He thinks he lost 30 lb. in the first two months, and "was feeling weak and incapable really of keeping up with my metabolism and the demands of my body."

He also felt the pressure to hunt for a moose to provide meat for the family through winter.

"Normally it would be a recreational thing where if you didn't get a moose, then it wasn't the end of the world, but I did certainly feel the weight of it this time," he said.

Carrots became 'our candy'

Crocker said the family got into a groove as time went on.

"You just get into this pattern where once a week you make the butter, and once a week you make the yogurt, and then it all kind of becomes easier," she said.

Eating 100 per cent local meant Crocker had to get creative when it came to ingredients like sugar. Instead, she used sugar beets. (Submitted by Suzanne Crocker)

Their diets adapted to the foods that were available for the season — above-ground greens in spring and summer, and root vegetables in winter — and they found local alternatives to things they were used to.

"There actually is a huge variety in spices and flavours — using birch syrup, for example, as our main sweetener is just full of flavour," she said.

The discovery led to "birch syrup toffee, birch syrup ice cream, birch syrup custard," she said, while they also started eating berries they could harvest or cultivate, like saskatoons and haskaps and cranberries.

It took a while, but even the kids were won over, with Sam enjoying the solid three meals a day: "eggs and meat and potatoes and all of that stuff that kind of keeps you going and fills you up."

Kate said she learned to appreciate "how much better local vegetables are than store bought vegetables."

"It was like our candy; it was like our treat to eat a locally grown carrot," she said.

Crocker has lived off the grid for a previous film, where she took her family into the Yukon wilderness for nine months. (Alex Hakonson)

Kids understand food cycle

When the year came to an end, most of the family went back to the things they had missed — like coffee or store-bought bread and fruit — while Sam went straight to town to buy himself a cheeseburger.

But they have a new-found appreciation for the work that goes into getting food from farm to plate.

"It's more than just picking it off the shelf, I can see the whole process," Tess said.

A couple of years on, Crocker is sticking with what she learned from the experiment, even if she allows herself the indulgence of a "secret drawer of chocolate." 

"I continue to eat 95 per cent local to my community, I still stock our house with a year's worth of food every fall," she said.

She estimates the rest of the family is at about 75 per cent, and describes the experience as "transformative."

"It was a really humbling experience to actually know where every ingredient on my plate comes from," she said.

"And not only where geographically, but actually know the hand that helped raise or grow it or gather it, and the land that produced it." 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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