Residents of the rural South are at high risk for heart disease and are frequently identified as having high blood cholesterol, but sources for nutrition counseling in rural areas are often limited. To increase the availability of high quality nutrition counseling, the Food for Heart Program was developed for public health nurses and is designed to circumvent many of the obstacles common to dietary counseling. We conducted a randomized trial to assess the effectiveness of this program to lower blood cholesterol. In this report, we describe the study design, intervention program, and baseline characteristics of participants. Nurses at 17 health departments screened 781 subjects to enroll 468 with high blood cholesterol: three-quarters of the subjects were female, the mean age was 55, and 80% were white. Participants were at high risk for heart disease: 60% had two or more risk factors for coronary disease, the majority were overweight with a mean BMI of 29, and the mean cholesterol was 257 mg/dL. Reported baseline dietary intake included relatively modest consumption of high fat meats and snack foods, excessive consumption of sweets, modest intake of complex carbohydrates, and inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables.