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Nevada County Hopes It's In for Leaner Times

January 21, 2004|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — Folks here have decided to shape up the municipal midriff, cut those civic carbohydrates and trim some community flab.

Nevada County is on a diet, en masse.

Spurred by a local newspaper columnist, about 800 residents of this pine-draped county straddling the Sierra Nevada have joined in a communal weight-loss program. The Nevada County Meltdown, they've dubbed it.

Jenny Craig has nothing on this group. If all goes according to plan, participants hope to collectively shed more than 4 tons of fat in two months. It has already caused the biggest hubbub anyone has seen here in years.

A local restaurant has tailored its own meltdown menu to the dietary needs of participants. Local gyms have offered free memberships. The local Kmart sold out of bathroom scales. The Board of Supervisors dished up a proclamation heralding the effort, calling on residents to make Nevada County the fittest spot in America. The mayor of nearby Nevada City has joined in the act.

"This is awesome," said Sheri Jeffery, who hopes to use the meltdown to jump-start her resolution to shed more than 150 pounds. "They're not telling us what to eat, how to do it. It's just everyone supporting whatever will work for you."

A few cities around the country -- among them Carson City, Nev., Great Falls, Mont., and Garden City, Kan. -- have organized weight-loss campaigns in the past. But folks in Nevada County figure theirs is the most enthusiastic.

The idea came from Carole Carson, an effervescent 62-year-old with a weight loss story to tell.

Two years ago, Carson came to the conclusion that she was fat. At 5 feet 2, her weight had climbed over 180 pounds.

Not the sort to avoid a challenge, Carson decided to lose weight and motivate others while she was doing it. She persuaded editors at the Nevada Union newspaper to let her chronicle her efforts.

The first story, featuring a photo of Carson in her size 20 dress, ran on the front page. Over the next four months, she dutifully told the story of losing more than 40 pounds. Carson continued to drop weight after the newspaper series ended, and now wears a dress size smaller than she wore in college. She now writes a monthly health column for the newspaper.

Amid disturbing news reports about the nation's ballooning obesity problems, Carson proposed in her November column that Nevada County take on weight loss collectively. A local gym manager called up and offered to help, and the idea snowballed from there.

By the first meltdown meeting Jan. 6, everyone in town seemed to know about it. With New Year's resolutions dancing in their heads, more than 700 people crammed into the high school's theater, filling the aisles and spilling out the doors.

They moved the second week's meeting to the school cafeteria, but the crowd still spilled out. Future meetings will be held in an exhibition hall at the county fairgrounds.

More than 130 teams of five have been formed to provide each participant a heaping portion of peer support. Carson estimates that 100 to 200 more county residents are attending meetings and losing pounds on their own.

The newspaper will publish a running weekly tally of each team's cumulative weight loss. When the mass diet concludes Feb. 23, the team with the biggest plunge will win prizes. And, no, that does not include an ice cream sundae.

Jeffrey, who works in the billing department for a physicians group, joined with co-workers to form "The Billing Babes."

Hanson Sand and Gravel has a team. The women at West America Bank shed 19 pounds collectively during the first week, and happily modeled new team T-shirts silk-screened just for the meltdown. More than 30 of the 100 employees at the Nevada Union joined in to lose weight.

Carson talks now about the little county setting a mark for communal weight loss worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records.

She has fielded more than 600 e-mails in the last few weeks. Aside from serving as the effort's motivational spark and information source, she has proved good with a quip during the weekly meetings.

"Some said they had found the weapon of mass destruction, and it's here in our kitchens -- it's called a fork," she told the crowd last week to roars of laughter. "For a lot of us, food is our recreational drug of choice."

For the next 20 minutes, Carson whipped them up, extolling the virtues of exercise, a better diet and a dose of gumption.

Atkins, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig -- it doesn't matter how you do it, Carson said. Just develop a whole new philosophy about exercise, diet and health, then stay the course.

"You can be the Mother Teresa of fitness in the country," she said.

"We're going to make ourselves the fittest little county in the nation!"

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