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Before Sandra Lee built her culinary empire as a bestselling author, Emmy-winning TV personality, and creator of well-loved Food Network shows Semi-Homemade Cooking and Sandra’s Money Saving Meals — and long before she was living in her New Castle mansion with long-term partner Governor Andrew Cuomo — she learned the art of stretching a dollar. Growing up poor with an absentee mother and four younger siblings, Lee became a surrogate mom to her siblings, taking on the challenge of stretching her family’s food stamps to feed the kids and create family meals.

But don’t expect Lee to mourn her childhood. “I don’t look at it as a challenging childhood; I look at my experience as a gift,” she says. “If it wasn’t for being raised on welfare, using food stamps, if I hadn’t been the oldest of five with little parental guidance for input, I certainly wouldn’t know the grocery store and products as well as I do — or how to multitask, which is probably one of my greatest strengths. All of those things have led to who I am.”

Of all of her many roles, it is her work as a children’s advocate that Lee values most, including her work as one of the founding board members for the LA chapter of UNICEF and her leadership role in the national nonprofit No Kid Hungry. “I’d like to be remembered for my activism when it comes to children’s causes and hunger issues. Those are the things that are really near and dear to my heart,” she explains. “The work I still want to do is for the upcoming generations, providing all kids with a wonderful, safe platform that is home-and-food-secure.”

Today, the 50-year-old phenom, who chose not to have her own children but is a stepmom to Cuomo’s three daughters and doting aunt to her nephews and nieces, says the desire to take care of her family is what still drives her to succeed. “I’m driven by the thought of making darn good and sure my family and I are never in a position of welfare and food stamps again. I want all of my nieces and nephews to have a really beautiful education. To be able to provide that for my family is probably one of the most important things I can do.

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