From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
For dinner Lady Jackson didn't stop with the greasy burgers or fried chicken she whipped up for her four kids, ranging from age 12 to 27. "I'd wait until everybody went to bed, and I'd have a whole pizza while I watched TV," says Jackson, 45, who ballooned up to almost 200 lbs. two years ago. When her cholesterol hit a dangerously high 219, she knew enough was enough. "My prayer was, Lord, let me live long enough to see my children grown," she recalls. "I was out of shape, so I started doing something about my health."

Now she wants to inspire others to do the same in Jonestown, Miss.-a small town of 1,500 residents in Coahoma County, which boasts one of the nation's highest obesity rates. And with the closest grocery store 12 miles away, Jonestown falls in one of the 6,500 food deserts across the country where fresh food is hard to come by (see box). "We have tiny grocery stores that major in pop, beer and chips," says Sister Teresa Shields, 66, who runs the Jonestown Family Center, where Jackson recently signed up for a six-week nutrition course. Since then dinner looks dramatically different at home. "My favorite meal is baked chicken," says Jackson, a teacher at the Family Center. "We eat raw spinach salads. I buy a lot of mixed vegetables-stuff we never would have dreamed of eating."

Jackson also leads a growing group of friends and family at Tae Bo classes at the Family Center's gym, which she opens after hours so people can join her after work. "Lady is the motivator," says Jackson's friend Zakeena Johnson, who has lost 15 lbs. "She is always like, 'You can do this!'" While Jackson has lost 40 lbs. so far, the biggest change in her life? "I see my 17-year-old [Erin] walking two miles a day. She also gave up soda and likes water," she says proudly. "I'm trying to stop a generation of eating wrong and start a generation of eating right."

  • Contributors:
  • with Darla Atlas/Jonestown.