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At school students usually answer the questions, but a group of La Follette High School students participating in a career-development program recently had an opportunity to turn the tables and ask the questions of local professionals.

About a dozen community members took part in “Food Matters,” which allowed La Follette ninth graders to ask questions in informal, small groups in the school library last Tuesday morning. The focus was food and nutrition systems and access in the community. They also asked about education and careers in the field.

“The kids I talked to afterwards talked about how the people treated us like real people,” said Kris Howard, Pathways coordinator at La Follette High School, who organized the event. “It is easy to forget how thoughtful and curious a 14-year-old can be. … High school students are looking at the problems around them and wondering what can be done.”

The session was part of the Madison School District’s Personalized Pathways program, which allows students to study core subjects in small learning groups and with a career-oriented theme, such as health care.

The La Follette students will use what they learned from the conversations as a starting point for a research and advocacy project, which will include a field trip to a farm and writing an advocacy letter to someone who has influence in these issues.

The event was first held last year when community members came to La Follette to talk to ninth graders about the development at Royster Corners.

Many of the students, who are in the Pathways program to learn about becoming leaders for community health and wellness, asked questions about careers and education in the health care field.

Ginny Hughes, education director of Community GroundWorks, who was participating in the question-and-answer session, said she was surprised when the very first question she was asked was, “What does your organization not do well?”

Casey Hendrickson, human resources director at Woodman’s Market, spoke about how he waited until he was 22 to enroll in college and has changed jobs over the years at the company where he has worked since he was 16.

That resonated with ninth grader Kala Algrem, who is considering becoming a surgeon or working in large animal veterinary science.

“You can always change what you want to do,” Algrem said. “It doesn’t matter what the age is.”

Ninth grader Jonathan Torres said he liked hearing Joe Muellenberg, horticulture program director at Dane County UW Extension, talk about the flexibility of a career that allows working in different locations and with different ages.

“I want to help people get through tough moments,” Torres said about his interest in psychology.

Hughes talked about her organization’s work with youth in gardening and cooking and asked if the students had ever eaten anything fresh out of the garden.

“Food can be such an incredible connection,” Hughes said about youth growing food and giving it away.

Armond Garcia, who is considering a career as a pharmacist, said he learned about opportunities in health care and other “cool things.”

“I just kind of learned more about what it’s like to be a dietitian and nutritionist and how to get the food out to …families,” said ninth grader Cassidy Lipp.

Cassandra Vanderwall, UW Health Dietetic Internship Program director and clinical nutritionist, said she appreciated a comment made by one student when talking about what people would do if all they had was a gas station for purchasing food nearby. The student said it wouldn’t be impossible for people to get the food they need, they would just have to try harder.

“It was inspiring,” Vanderwall said.

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