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From Food Stamps to Food Network Star: Sandra Lee

Daily Ticker

Best-selling author and Food Network personality Sandra Lee is the exemplar of the ‘American Dream’: she grew up in poverty, helped raise her four younger siblings and now manages a lifestyle empire that includes 25 books, a magazine that bears her name, four highly-rated culinary TV programs and a housewares line that’s sold in Kmart/Sears. She says unequivocally that her meager upbringing was the reason why she’s so successful today.

“My childhood was a complete blessing,” she says in an interview with The Daily Ticker. “It was a challenging way to live, a challenging way to grow up… but it benefitted me so much.”

Related: The 'American Dream' Is a Myth: Joseph Stiglitz

By age 12 Lee was cooking, cleaning and checking her siblings’ homework assignments after her stepfather moved out of the family’s Washington home and her mother became bedridden. Welfare and food stamps paid the bills.

In Made From Scratch, Lee’s 2007 memoir, she writes, “If we had extra expenses, or even if we were $5 short, that meant we wouldn’t be eating for the last few days of the month.”

Lee never forgot her harrowing childhood and ending hunger and poverty have become Lee’s passions away from the kitchen. She will be hosting the world’s biggest bake sale on Wednesday, May 1, from 10am to 7pm at Grand Central Terminal in New York to raise money for the No Kid Hungry campaign.

The campaign is a national fundraising initiative that “connects kids in need with nutritious food and teaches their families how to cook healthy, affordable meals.” More than 30 of New York City’s most popular restaurants will be participating in the bake sale and the event’s co-chairs include Martha Stewart, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Guy Fieri and Wendy Williams.

According to Lee, who has been a spokesperson for No Kid Hungry for seven years, an estimated 16 million American children do not have enough food to eat. There were 47.8 million people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in December 2011. Forty-six million men, women and children were living below the U.S. poverty line in 2011.

Related: Marion Nestle: Americans Aren't Just Fat, They're Hungry Too

Lee’s rags-to-riches story may seem like an exception rather than the rule but Lee insists that anyone can change their situation for the better.

“I just went out and did it,” she says. “I don’t think anything is given to anyone. You have to seek out opportunities."

The American Dream, she contends, is “absolutely alive."

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