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Paying it forward

Gary Marks knew that he had to do something

Gary Marks sheds his mask for a quick photo while visiting Hawaiian Moons Natural Foods in Kihei. Marks launched the We Love Hawaii Food Project to provide healthy food to unemployed residents during the pandemic. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

At first, Gary Marks thought there had been a terrible accident.

Early one morning in mid-July, the longtime Kihei resident ventured out for a cup of coffee. As he drove down Piilani Highway, he passed by a long line of cars pulled off to the side.

But as he continued down the highway, he realized the line, which stretched for miles, led to a church parking lot where volunteers were loading boxes of food into backseats, trunks and truck beds.

The sheer number of people waiting for food that morning made his heart sink.

“It was horrible,” he said.

Marks says he couldn’t sit idly by when so many people were in need.

“I had to do something,” he said.

That afternoon, he and his wife, Theresa, their daughter, Skylar, and son, Shawn, gathered around the kitchen table to discuss ways they could help. They came up with a few ideas. None stuck to the wall.

Two weeks later, Marks was shopping for groceries at Hawaiian Moons Natural Foods when he noticed he was the only customer in the store. That’s when it clicked. What if he could provide free, healthy food to struggling families — and support a locally owned small business at the same time?

A plan quickly took shape: Households where a parent had become unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic could sign up to receive $100 to purchase groceries at Hawaiian Moons. The goal, Marks explained, was to put nutritious food in refrigerators and cupboards so families could sit down and have dinner together. He pitched the idea — which he named the We Love Hawaii Food Project — to Hawaiian Moons co-owners Phil Reider and Kristyn and Tim Ewing, who unhesitatingly agreed to participate.

After that, there was a flurry of preparation. Marks connected to a global nonprofit organization, Embracing the World, to gain nonprofit status for the all-volunteer We Love Hawaii Food Project. To kick things off, he donated $5,000 out of his own pocket; two friends matched his contribution, and eventually, more donations began to trickle in. With the help of a union representative, Marks reached out to 120 out-of-work hotel employees (who, at the time, were among the more than 1,400 unemployed hospitality workers in South Maui alone) with young children at home. He sent gift letters to each and provided a list of the recipients to Hawaiian Moons.

On Saturday, Aug. 29 (which happened to be Marks’s birthday), the first We Love Hawaii Food Project shopper walked through the front doors of Hawaiian Moons. Since then, the program has put an estimated 4,000 healthy meals on the tables of more than 200 local families. It also expanded to include anyone in any industry who needs help feeding their families, whether they are unemployed or have recently returned to work.

And that’s 200-plus families and counting: Marks said the program will continue as long as there are donations and until all of the donated money is spent.

“We’ll keep going until it runs out,” he said.

It may have been his idea, but Marks says the We Love Hawaii Food Project owes its success to Hawaiian Moons and the big-hearted donors and volunteers who have stepped up to help over the past few months.

A $100 store credit might not save a life, he said, “but it shows people that their neighbors really care about them — and that they’re not alone.”

To learn more about the We Love Hawaii Food Project, to make a donation, or if you lost your job at any point due to COVID-19 and need assistance, visit www.welovehawaii.org or email wlhfoodproject@gmail.com. Donations can also be made via a dedicated GoFundMe page: https://gf.me/u/y2m5k8. One-hundred percent of every dollar received will go toward purchasing food for families in need.

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