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The Ravenous and Resourceful Sandra Lee

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Serving her infamous Kwanzaa cake.  

The family went on welfare and food stamps, and Sandra, holding it all together, learned to make do. “On the way home [from the store], I had to ride very carefully so that the full plastic bags hanging from my handlebars wouldn’t swing and break the eggs,” 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.” She earned money however she could, raking neighbors’ leaves, picking berries, making pot holders she priced at $1 a pair. “I remember her telling me she’d bring part of her school lunch home for her brothers and sisters,” says Colleen Schmidt, Sandra’s best friend from college.

Home life continued to deteriorate. Sandra called 911 one evening after she watched her mother swallow a bottle of pills. She writes that her mother beat her until her nose bled, “my eyes were swollen, and my body was covered in welts.” Her stepfather, who had moved back in, was sexual with her in a way that the memoir leaves vague.

In June 1982, nearly 16 and seeking a fresh start, she went to live with Wayne, her birth father, in western Wisconsin. At Onalaska High, where she was called Sandy Waldroop once again, she felt like an outsider, and she missed her brothers and sisters. She became depressed; it was “the only time I ever considered taking my own life,” she writes. Things looked better for a time, but then, according to reports in the La Crosse Tribune, her father was arrested for raping his 25-year-old girlfriend. Sandra, returning home to find the two on her father’s bed, became a witness. After the Tribune repeatedly named her in its coverage of the case, she showed up at the newspaper’s offices to confront the reporter. Her father, 35, was convicted of second-degree sexual assault and sentenced to a year in prison.

Through all this, Sandra found ways to feel better about her life. As a little girl, she would tear out pages from catalogues and mix and match them to assemble dream bedrooms and wardrobes. In high school, she allowed herself reveries fueled by Stevie Nicks and lots of Danielle Steele novels. In Wisconsin, even as her father was on trial, she was a cheerleader. “A lot of people would have thrown in the towel a number of times,” says Birdie Rand, who as a buyer at Target would later be among the first to take a chance on Lee. “Sandra would take the towel and redesign it and make it pretty and make it something a whole lot of people would like to buy.”

Lee studied physical therapy and business at the local university, squeezing in classes between two jobs—she waitressed breakfasts and dinners at a Ramada Inn, lunches at a Chinese restaurant. Her dorm room was done all in white, with ruffled curtains and framed prints and dried-flower arrangements. “She was shabby chic before the term was ever coined,” says Schmidt, who recalls that in Sandra’s closet, the clothes were arranged from dark to light, “everything perfectly and neatly folded.”

“I don’t ever remember her being down or negative,” Schmidt says.

On a miserably inclement morning the week after the Tyson shoot, Lee is driven five hours past frozen lakes and snow-­covered hills, to Elmira, a town west of Binghamton. Today, the only New York food bank that she hasn’t yet visited is inaugurating its expanded facility.

Lee steps out of the car wearing a hoodie sweater, her hair pulled back in a chignon, clutching a handbag and a liter bottle of Aquafina. While the local media cool their heels in a large warehouse space, Lee meets with the food bank’s executives and some reps from Sam’s Club, who are here to donate $10,000. She lets them know about her commitment to the hunger issue—about Grandma Lorraine, who ran a food pantry in Santa Monica for years; about the Great American Bake Sale, which she says Guinness has expressed interest in for possibly being the world’s biggest. She asks questions, takes notes. When it comes to this issue, Lee is not a dilettante. She knows the statistics, the logistics, the nuances of protein procurement, the economics of food banks. She can tell you the percentage of food-bank users in Buffalo who are homeless (just 6 percent). She can tell you that 40 percent are kids and 36 percent are single mothers.

Everyone moves to greet the press. Amid flashing cameras, Lee speaks briefly before ceding the podium to a Sam’s Club rep who presents a giant cardboard check to the food bank’s director. During a tour of the facility, Lee wanders away from the group, nosing around and inspecting pallets of Wasa crackers, sacks of potatoes, frozen chickens, applesauce.


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