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On a mission uniquely hers; Lee, companion of the governor, visits to help a cause that stirs memories of a child in need

The state's new "first girlfriend," Sandra Lee, knows her way around kitchens, like the ones in her hit cooking shows on the Food Network.

And after holding the Bible at the inauguration of her longtime beau, Andrew M. Cuomo, it's a good bet she'll soon take a turn at the big kitchen in Albany's Executive Mansion, too.

But on Tuesday, the famous maven of "semi-homemade" was in Buffalo to focus on homes where cupboards are bare. And she brought along a check for $10,000 from Sam's Club for the Food Bank of Western New York.

It's part of a longtime commitment that stems from her own experience.

"I myself was raised on welfare and food banks," she said. "And I was a child who benefited not only from the food banks, but also from their sponsors."

Lee, 44, is the focus of a new spotlight this week as she tours the state's 10 food banks with a message about her favorite causes, including the No Kid Hungry campaign sponsored by the Share Our Strength foundation headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Reporters were asked by her publicist and Food Bank officials to ask no "personal" questions. And she dismissed any suggestion that her statewide tour stems from any new role -- official or unofficial.

"If I were living in California, I'd do this in California," Lee said. "This is the state I call home, and that's what I'm doing here."

Still, her appearances in Albany on Monday and in Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo on Tuesday raise a slew of questions about what role the new governor's girlfriend will play, especially given the high profile of so many other first ladies of New York.

Aides to Cuomo insisted Tuesday, as they have since he was elected in November, that Lee will play no official role. She will have no office space or staff, will not be provided with State Police protection and will only occasionally visit the 40-room Victorian mansion on Albany's Eagle Street, they said.

Most news reports say Lee will continue to spend most of her time at the home she owns in the Village of Mount Kisco, Westchester County, that she shares with Cuomo.

And her causes are expected to be her own, with no connection to the new governor.

So with all that established, Lee went about her business Tuesday, lauding the work of the Food Bank and the 338 local agencies that serve 92,000 people throughout Western New York.

"Forty percent of those 92,000 are children," she said. "And that is an unbelievable amount of kids who are going hungry in this area."

Saying she will return in March to launch the foundation's Great American Bake Sale fundraiser, Lee praised Food Bank sponsors such as Sam's Club and Wegmans that also fund backpacks of food for hungry children.

"This is a wonderful program that also allows kids to not be embarrassed at school," Lee said. "They can take home a backpack of food, and nobody knows about it."

From her own experience of handing over food stamps in grocery stores, the now-famous TV chef said the program spares the embarrassment she knew as a child.

"The reason I've taken this on personally is because it's where I come from," Lee said. "I understand how when you are a child, you are afraid. It's almost a desperation.

"If it weren't for these food banks and our food pantries, these kids would be going hungry."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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