Michele Sakaguchi teaches microbiology to learners enrolled in the Woodhaven High School, a private alternative high school, whose classes meet at the South Whidbey Community Center. Michele’s teaching style engages her class in applying their knowledge to the community and the real world. Michele is a long-time educator in the South Whidbey community.

“I’ve taught for over twenty years in primarily the public alternative programs here (Bayview High School, South Whidbey Academy, South Whidbey Middle School, and the ALE,” Michelle wrote in an email.

ALE stands for Alternative Learning Experience, a first through eighth grade education program administered with the South Whidbey School District. The Bayview Alternative High School, once a part of SWSD, operated from 1995-2012. The South Whidbey Academy is an alternative high school for grades 10-12 and is under the umbrella of SWSD.

In Michele’s Woodhaven class this semester, microbiology included studying the human microbiome.

Earlier this year, learners watched author Michael Pollan’s series, ‘Cooked,’ whose episodes included the evolution in food preparation. The show’s segments: Fire—how it shapes the way we eat by cooking our food to make it more digestible; Water—visiting traditional cooks in India and exploring the consequences of highly processed foods; Air—exploring breads and gluten; and—most apropos to Michele’s microbiology lesson—Earth—which, according to the show’s description: “explores how microbes help turn raw ingredients into delicacies like chocolate and cheese, as Pollan tackles the mysterious process of fermentation.”

“They affect our mood. They affect our brain,” Michele said of the tiny life forms. “Microbes…unseen, unheard, under appreciated, unsung heroes. They connect us to our ancient ancestors, and bring us together in present day. We share food that has been fermented. We share our cultural richness when we dine on chocolate, cheese, kimchi, sauerkraut.”

What better way, then, to witness microbiology doing its work than by inviting Britt Eustis, founder of Britt’s Fermented Foods in Clinton, to demonstrate the fine art of fermenting? Britt spoke to the class of 12 May 24th.

Britt Eustus, founder of Britt’s Fermented Foods, left, talks with learners as they chop vegetables to ferment. Photo by Michele Sakaguchi

“We’re doing kimchi today, which originally came from Korea years ago,” Britt said to the class. “They fermented napa cabbage, salted it, and put it in clay jars, where they packed it tight. The jars were buried.”

Koreans have practiced this art of pickling as a means of preserving foods and providing digestive enzymes since the BC era.

Yet, in our modern times, eating of fermented foods fell out of style. Gut health has suffered. No wonder there’s an explosion of products designed to sooth our digestive tracts sold in nearly every food store!

Preserving food and getting through the winter for centuries created a symbioses between our gut biome and fermentation, Britt explained to the class. Yet much of the practice fell away in the mid-twentieth century with food industry’s effort to speed things up and make food shelf stable.

He recalled his early interest in organic foods and the macrobiotic cooking trend while working during the 1980s for a Denver-based importer of Japanese foods.

“I traveled all around Japan and was blown away that many of their fermented foods—shoyu (Japanese type of soy sauce), miso, and pickled daikon radish—were sold by companies that were 150-500 years old,” Britt said. “These products are enduring. They bring important factors to good health.”

Britt spoke about fermented foods’ benefit to long-voyaging sailors, who ate sauerkraut to prevent scurvy, a disease caused by Vitamin C deficiency.

When Britt arrived in Seattle in 2010, he started experimenting with fermenting pickles in oak barrels at his sister’s home. He developed a business model, and the products were sold at PCC natural food markets and beyond. The company has grown since then, and continues to be “somewhat of a family affair. My son is a graphic artist and does the art for packaging,” Britt said.

Learners opened boxes containing Britt’s Fermented Foods Pickle-ators. The half gallon jars contained lids fitted with gaskets and tubes which process carbon dioxide and oxygen, by-products of the fermentation process. A weight made of fired red clay is placed in the jar to compress the ingredients as they ferment.

Britt’s Fermented Foods Pickle-ator kit with layers of veggies. From Britt’s Fermented Foods webpage

Learners then chopped onion, garlic, broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, apples, oranges, orange peel, and napa cabbage, which they would ferment with salt and spices.

“When you do fermentation, you are digesting the food with bacteria,” Britt added. “Compounds in food that are difficult for us to digest are broken down with fermentation.”

Learners in Michele Sakaguchi’s microbiology class at Woodhaven High School chop vegetables and fruit, preparing them for fermentation. Photo by Marli Jenkins

Eating fermented foods is linked to maintaining a stronger immune system, Britt said.

Mentioning a study done during COVID…”where there was a higher level of eating fermented foods…the mortality rates were lowered,” Britt said. “There is a connection with the immune system. Fermented foods are an important part of our diet. The bacteria wakes up the immune system and gets it to wake up T cells and other compounds in the immune system to prevent flu.”

The class added their ingredients to a large metal bowl. From it they filled their Pickle-ators. The jars will be stored in a dark closet for at least a week.

Scooping ingredients into Pickle-ator Fermentation kit while Britt Eustus, founder of Britt’s Fermented Foods, looks on. From left: Liam Akhtar (9th grade), and Tanis Clizer (10th grade). Photo by Marli Jenkins

“Perhaps we can serve the kimchi at graduation,” Michele suggested.

Woodhaven’s 2024 graduation honors one student, who is a senior this year.

The school’s community will gather June 14 at the Organic Farm School, where Woodhaven’s community-inspired high school was launched there in September 2019.
“We started in 2019,” Marli Jenkins, founder of the Woodhaven High School said. “It feels like it’s starting to mature. Heidi Nelson, began helping and volunteering in the summer of 2021. She now co-administrates with me. Amanda Pitts, who has a passion for alternative education, joined us this year. Without them, we would not be where we are today. I love working with these amazing women and with our group of dedicated and creative instructors, like Michele. It’s good energy. Seeing our learners as happy young people is good energy. Having someone like Britt come in, who’s never met us before…time and again, our greater community shows up and we get to help connect our learners with the talented and exceedingly generous group of people who live here on Whidbey. When young people are willing to become engaged and participate, it’s powerful and they remember and are able to take and build on their experiences. They grow in confidence and in their abilities. It helps them realize that no matter their age, they have a lot of power for good and it’s extremely inspiring not just for them but also for the rest of us.”
Alicia Jenkins, grade 10, gets ready to measure chopped kimchi ingredients. Photo by Marli Jenkins
Britt Eustus, right, adjusts the airlock on a Pickle-ator kit, while 9th grader Cormac Nazarian looks on. Pickle-ators are available on Britt’s Fermented Foods webpage. Photo by Michele Sakaguchi

Later, Michele emailed, asking, “If possible, I would like to include two appreciations:

“I would like to acknowledge Britt’s generosity of his time (he brought foods & supplies with him, including the huge bowl and oak barrel), expertise and he donated four “PIckle-ators,” which are kits for home-fermentation (jar, spices, instruction/recipe book, air-lock, etc) to the school to keep and to continue making fermented foods.

“The “Learning Lab” loaned us all of the cutting boards and knives and other kitchen equipment.”

For more information about Woodhaven High School, visit this webpage.

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6 Comments

  1. It was a pleasure to have you come and visit our class. Thank you for such a wonderful article Kate!💛🌲 Marli

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