A Visionary Teacher in Pacifica Leads to a Bountiful High School Garden

laurie huguesWhat was once a rock-covered gravel lot behind a school cafeteria is now a thriving garden of potatoes, chard, artichokes, green beans, onions, fresh herbs, bok choy, strawberries (and even a few chickens!), thanks to the dedication of Oceana High School teacher, Laurie Hughes.

Laurie wears three hats on campus – she is a Humanities teacher, a nutrition educator, and she oversees the school’s bountiful garden. This 150 square foot garden serves as a hands-on outdoor learning arena, a laboratory for environmental sciences, and a food source for the school’s cafeteria.

The idea for a campus garden was started in 2009 by a student who was inspired by a trip to Pie Ranch on the San Mateo coast. This non-profit ranch mentors aspiring farmers and welcomes students from local high schools to participate in farm-based programs and activities.  The annual trips organized by Laurie are 5-day, overnight farming experiences that provide exposure to hands-on organic gardening, aimed to inspire and educate students on the benefits of fresh, healthy food and the rewards of a “grow-it-yourself” life.

That inspiration paid off.

“A student named Naftali Moed became really interested in learning about farming,” said Laurie Hughes.  “He returned to Oceana High in the fall of 2009 and wrote grants to get funding for us to create a garden at the school.  Together we worked with the school’s principal and eventually got permission to transform a vacant lot behind the cafeteria, breaking ground on the new garden in 2010.”

Today, all garden work is done by students. The initial work was especially difficult, requiring the removal and cultivation of gravely soil, and spreading truckloads of compost. The produce grown in the garden, as well as the fresh eggs from the chickens, is used in class; some food goes to the school cafeteria, and the remaining produce is sold to staff on site. 

“To tend the garden, we have a student Garden Advisory Group that meets for 25 minutes, four days a week,” shared Hughes. “Despite some dirty clothes and faces, I’ve been told many times that kids who participate in gardening classes have much more energy and better attitudes than those kids who are confined indoors.”

While Laurie is not compensated for the time she spends after-school and on weekends, she is committed to this project. “I do it because I think it’s important that school gardens exist in high schools,” said Hughes. “There are a number of school gardens in elementary schools throughout the county, but in high schools, hands-on nutrition and gardening courses are often overlooked for more traditional academic areas.  Many of our high school kids had never before seen some of the foods they are now growing.  They’re unfamiliar with them due in-part to our fast food culture.”

In fact, in Hughes’ cooking class, part of a student’s work is to eat foods they’ve never eaten before, and to understand the nutritional value and the proper way to prepare the food.  This awareness of food, how it’s grown, what it looks likes, and its great taste helps kids and young adults to change their attitudes about eating healthier, which helps lead to a longer and healthier life. 

Thank you, Laurie Hughes for being a champion of good nutritional health for the youth of San Mateo County.  You are a true Health Hero.


Each month San Mateo Health System features a new Health Hero – someone making a difference by working to improve the health of our communities. Is there a Health Hero in your life?  Contact us and let us know!