Jesse Whitehead got a taste of vulnerable northern food systems this month, after storms cut off his town's supplies.
Heavy rains and mudslides that washed out sections of the Alaska Highway earlier this month put a spotlight on the vulnerability of northern communities dependent on food supplies from the south.
The flooding happened Wednesday, June 6, and while businesses like Tim Hortons and Superstore were flying in supplies on Hercules helicopters the following Sunday, store shelves would remain eerily empty for another week.
Jesse Whitehead, who moved to Whitehorse from Vancouver six weeks ago to find work, said the shortage didn’t last long enough for people to be too concerned.
“I’m kind of stocked up on food so I’m not going hungry, that’s for sure,” he told The Tyee on Tuesday. “I have a cupboard full of brown rice and a bunch of yams and stuff. I’m not struggling to find food. If I were to throw a dinner party, that would be tough.”
At the same time, says Whitehead, there is a big movement towards growing food. He says people are starting to think more about greenhouses, and that there are a lot of garden beds — although with the risk of frost only recently passed, most have just been planted.
Some Yukoners turned back to the land for their greens. Local author Bev Gray told the Globe and Mail that she spent the weekend gathering spruce tips, fireweed greens and stinging nettles to eat.
“Even though we have no roads due to the washouts, we have an abundance of nutritious wild plants that we can harvest for food,” said Gray.
While relying on flown-in supplies was a novelty for those in Whitehorse, for other communities it’s par for the course. And it adds to the cost, another barrier to food security in the north. Earlier this month, residents in Nunavut drew national media attention by protesting the high cost of food in their communities.
(High food costs and limited access to fresh produce has created rural food “deserts” and higher rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in these communities.)
While the Alaska highway is now re-opened, other key access road in the north remain closed in the wake of what the Yukon’s assistant deputy minister of highways called “an unprecedented event.”
Whitehead says the sudden disappearance of food hasn’t made him rethink his decision to move up north, but it has made him aware of how vulnerable his new home can be.
“It’s interesting, because there’s a lot of kind of back-to-the-earth folks up here, and I started asking them right away when I moved up, how do you reconcile your existence with your beliefs?
“Because this is such a ridiculous place to live in a lot of ways. Our food is shipped in from obscenely far away. That’s definitely part of the conversation up here.”