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Sonoma County teen gets $36,000 for founding two health education organizations

When he was in sixth grade, Elias Rosenthal would eat a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios each morning and a bowl of ice cream each night. In between, there was an array of all-American processed and fast foods, from corn dogs and burritos to fries and burgers,

Then, one Sunday night, Rosenthal happened to watch a segment of CBS' “60 Minutes” called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” exploring the work of Dr. Robert Lustig of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, who was connecting sugar and processed food with obesity and chronic disease.

“I was a typical kid and not thinking about what I ate,” said Rosenthal, now 18 and a senior at Maria Carrillo High School. “His presentation was really mind-blowing, and it gave me self-awareness.”

As a result, Rosenthal not only changed his own eating habits but motivated his family to change their diet as well, with both his parents losing weight while becoming vegan. Then he reached out to his peers by launching Teens4Health.org, an organization promoting health and fitness literacy.

“As a family, we started changing our foods, using fresh ingredients instead of the microwavable, processed foods,” he said. “I eat more of a vegetarian diet now … the transition is a struggle, but when you stick with it, it pays off.”

After launching his own Teens4Health website, he created a nutrition contest for teens, then filmed his own cooking videos and started taking teens on field trips to grocery stores and farms. Over the years, Rosenthal's outreach efforts have grown from the local community to the national and international stage, where he now has more than 6,000 social media followers.

Along the way, he has also raised money for worthy causes, donating to youth health education projects at Friendship House, California's largest Native American center; and Save a Child's Heart in Israel, which provides free heart transplants to needy children across the globe.

Mission: ‘To repair the world'

Earlier this year, Rosenthal was named one of 15 Jewish teens across the country to earn a 2017 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award, recognizing youth for their commitment to social good and volunteer service. Each of the recipients has realized the mission of tikkun olam, a Jewish concept that means “to repair the world.”

“He is educating his peers on how to save themselves from the scourge of chronic disease that now threatens our children,” said Lustig, who made Rosenthal a teen ambassador for his own nonprofit, the Institute for Responsible Nutrition. “Elias' work embodies ‘Tikkun Olam.'”

Now in its 11th year, the awards granted by the Helen Diller Family Foundation provide $36,000 to each recipient in support of their philanthropic project or to further their education. All of the 2017 recipients gathered in San Francisco in late August to meet each other and accept their awards.

As one of four children (including a fraternal twin), Rosenthal said he plans to use the grant to help his parents with college tuition as well as to increase his organization's outreach to the Latino Community with Teens4Health.

“We want to address that community by making the website in Spanish as well,” said Rosenthal, who plans to go into a health-related field such as nursing.

Engaging teens

Teens4Health started back in 2012, when Rosenthal decided to build his own website as a way to reach out to other tech-savvy teens and teach them about better nutrition.

“It was simple and basic at first,” he said. “The website started with nutrition facts and a contest, and then it started growing very fast through Facebook and Twitter.”

To encourage teens to read nutritional labels, the contest asks teens to look at a nutritional label in their own home and give the names of all the sugars and how much total sugar is in that product. Anyone who enters wins a prize.

“Your typical teenager is not very engaged,” he said. “The best way to motivate them is to reward them. At first, I gave money out of my own pocket, but now we fundraise.”

With his own cooking skills improving, Rosenthal decided to make a couple of YouTube cooking videos - one for a healthy omelet, the other for a fruit smoothie - with the help of Bay Area video producer Ken Ellis, who has worked for the George Lucas Educational Foundation's Edutopia.org. His cooking motto is: “If I'm able to cook, anyone can cook.”

Diving into business

Meanwhile, he had become hooked on the ABC reality show “Shark Tank,” where budding entrepreneurs make pitches to industry titans about their dream businesses. He started learning about concepts like equity and interest, which are not taught in school.

That experience gave him the idea to launch a second organization, Teens4Biz, that would help promote financial literacy among his peers. His challenges with launching Teens4Health gave him a good foundation for some of the skills he wanted to impart, including outreach and fund-raising,

“I had to learn how to manage a budget,” he said. “It's good to learn financial skills and public speaking at a young age.”

While Rosenthal took teens to grocery stores and farms to promote the lessons of Teens4Health, he took his peers to the bank for Teens4Biz, showing them how to open a bank account, write a check and manage their money.

These days, with college applications on the horizon, Rosenthal is concentrating on his classwork and on developing an exit strategy for his two organizations while staying fit by playing basketball and running.

“I'm up late at night, doing research and editing the website,” he said. “We have about 10 to 15 teens who help run the organization and spread the word. And one of them will take it over.”

Setting a good example

Meanwhile, he has started a Teens4Health club at his high school that meets during lunch and is trying to do what he can to change the eating habits of his peers, one bite at a time.

While going to summer camp in Baltimore, for example, he urged his fellow campers to get out of the habit of heading to Dunkin' Donuts every evening. And it worked. When he gets to college, he plans to keep an eye on the food in the dining halls.

“The buffets are terrible,” he said. “Maybe I could talk to the college administration about what they serve.”

This summer, he spent a week in Poland learning about the Nazi concentration camps, then spent a few weeks in Israel with a guided tour. One of his favorite destinations was the Salad Trail in the northern Negev desert, where fruits and vegetables are grown in high-tech greenhouses.

These days, he said his daily diet consists of Grape Nuts and a piece of cheese for breakfast; celery and carrot sticks with an apple for lunch; and various vegetarian dinners, such as rice and a veggie patty from Amy's Kitchen, with fruit for dessert.

Taking note of the diabetes that runs in his family - his uncle died of it, and his grandfather suffers from it - the health-conscious teen has decided to take no chances with his future.

“Cooking does take time,” he said. “But what is five minutes, when it has an impact on the rest of your life?”

For a complete list of 2017 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award winners, go to dillerteenawardsd.org. Find out more about Rosenthal's projects at Teens4Health.org and Teens4Biz.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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