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.
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.