Sandra Lee knows what it's like to face food insecurity.
As a child, Lee, 53, says she lived in a "food-challenged" environment, an upbringing that has made her passionate about ensuring other women, children and families aren't without food.
"I knew where I could go and get food for our family," Lee, who has been open about her family's dependence on food stamps and the welfare system during her youth, told TODAY, "but can you imagine being in an environment where there is nowhere to go? The despair you'd feel as a mother? As a child? It's unfathomable to me that people this day and age are in this situation."
It's that disbelief, coupled with a fierce desire to enact change, which led the former Food Network star to accept a position on the World Food Program USA board of directors. The Washington, D.C.-based WFP is an affiliate of the United Nations World Food Programme, and works to generate financial and in-kind donations to feed families in need around the world, as well as develop policies necessary to alleviate global hunger.
Lee has worked with several charitable organizations for years, including serving as a spokesperson for No Kid Hungry for more than a decade. In 2000, she founded a Los Angeles-based chapter of UNICEF. Five years ago, she was given UNICEF’s Special Appointment of Nutrition Emissary, raising awareness about the nutritional needs of children affected by hunger. She has also worked with organizations like the Elton John AIDS Foundation and God's Love We Deliver, a New York City-based organization that helps put food in the hands of people who are too sick to shop or cook for themselves.
Lee said when the WFP USA called her about the opportunity to accept a board position, it was a no-brainer.
"I'm not really a 'sit in the green room' kind of girl," Lee said of her decision. "I'm not really a 'When is our next mani pedi?' girl. I want to get the work done and I want to see a change made. When I saw the numbers and heard the reports, I had to act."
Lee joins former Senator Tom Daschle, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, Jodi Benson, the chief innovation, technology and quality officer for General Mills, and many others currently serving on the WFP USA board of directors.
In her new role, Lee will primarily be working on initiatives to get young people involved in solving the issues of world hunger and food insecurity, a task that makes her hopeful for the future.
"One of my initiatives will be to launch a next generation board of directors," Lee explained. "What's beautiful about the next generation is they're so philanthropically driven already that I think with a little bit of insight, knowledge and ability to make a difference, they will go so far in helping us create the food that is so desperately needed in the world."
Lee will also help create a public service announcement, featuring celebrities, chefs and various influencers, to help raise awareness and funding for the WFP's mission. While she can't yet share details about who exactly will be involved, Lee added that "several big names" have expressed excitement about participating.
"Once people start understanding what is actually going on in the world, there is no way anyone is going to be able to say no," she continued. "Because if it was your sister or your daughter or niece (experiencing food insecurity), you would make it happen, and that is what I know America is all about."
In 2019, the WFP helped feed about 100 million people facing severe food insecurity every day. The program estimates that there are 821 million food insecure people on the planet, 135 million of which are acutely or severely hungry.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect communities around the world, the WFP estimates that an additional 130 million people may be driven into severe hunger if conditions continue to deteriorate, bringing the total number of people who are suffering from extreme hunger due to the virus to 265 million this year.
Lee hopes her work will help reverse this troubling statistic.
"When we say 'food insecurity' in the U.S., that is such a soft way to say that without the WFP, these people would starve and these people would die," said Lee. "That is the truth — many people in this world want to put a lens over that so it's not as extreme or seemingly as desperate — but the bottom line is, it is extreme. It is desperate."