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Upcountry Strong Distributes 20 Tons of Food, Offers a Shining Moment in a Dark Time

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PC: courtesy of Upcountry Strong

Megan Nakashima is the president of Pukalani Superette and she is also among a group of generous and determined participants of what is now called Upcountry Strong, a partnership of individuals, businesses and not-for-profits that answered the need for food donations Upcountry during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is an interesting story, an anatomy of generosity, ingenuity, and organization at work for the good of the community.

In the seven events done under Upcountry Strong almost 40,000 pounds of food–that is to say about 20 tons–have been donated to needy Upcountry residents.

At each event, this much food gets distributed:

  • 1000 pounds of ground beef
  • 1000 pounds of fruit
  • 1000 pounds of dry goods
  • 1000 pounds of vegetables plus bread and any other donated items.

Pukalani Superette held the first food distribution Upcountry in late March 2020 as a collaboration with its distributor Sysco. “They needed to offload perishable food items and offered us the opportunity to purchase them at a discount with the intention that we donate it to the community,” said Nakashima. “I called the County of Maui to see if they could assist with a location [since] having all of upcountry converge on the store wouldn’t work out. They acquired the Pukalani Pool for us to use.”

  • Upcountry food distribution. March 30, 2020. PC: County of Maui
  • Upcountry food distribution. March 30, 2020. PC: County of Maui
  • Upcountry food distribution. March 30, 2020. PC: County of Maui
  • Upcountry food distribution. March 30, 2020. PC: County of Maui
  • Upcountry food distribution. March 30, 2020. PC: County of Maui
  • Upcountry food distribution. March 30, 2020. PC: County of Maui

Nakashima said the County of Maui used the Upcountry  framework, “and what we did that day to start holding their own food distributions in town and other areas.  They were able to see the need for food from the amount of people that showed up and saw that local businesses like ours were willing to pitch in.”

She recalled, “we then continued to do smaller distributions through the Upcountry public schools in partnership with the nonprofit Common Ground Collective and other distributions through community contacts. We kept holding them because people kept asking if they could help.”

During the same time, a group of neighbors that called themselves Makawao Strong were holding food drives and drive through initiatives to help the kupuna at Hale Mahaolu. Nakashima said at that time, it wasn’t safe for kupuna to really be out and about.

The movement  continued to evolve and gain strength partially based upon a shared frustration.

“Makawao Strong called us up around July 2020 to see if we could help. We discussed our mutual frustration that we could see the large food distributions occurring in town, but none being held Upcountry,”  Nakashima said.  “By the time Upcountry residents got down to the events, most likely the food was already given away. We wanted to make sure that our neighbors wouldn’t go hungry.”


And so, Upcountry Strong was born.

“It was then that we decided to join forces and started to call the movement Upcountry Strong. It embodied the idea that together we could help each other out and we were intentionally inclusive to all of Upcountry, not just Makawao and not just Pukalani,” Nakashima said.

If ever a community came together to help its own, this was the time and place. A shining moment during a dark time.

“I think the part that makes this movement special is that it is community driven. We asked for donations in whatever form people could provide. Some of it was canned goods, some was monetary, and some were products from other businesses. We then put it right back into the community for their benefit. ‘Puk Sup’ leveraged its  buying power and distribution channels to purchase food at wholesale to make whatever money was donated stretch. We purchased produce from the local farmers when we could.”

She also said that Kaonoulu Ranch was a definite key player in all of this. They provided the use of Oskie Rice Arena.


“Without a location, we wouldn’t be able to do the distributions.  We learned this early on from the first one we did by ourselves in March 2020. Witthout them nothing would have happened.”

One particular highlight was the Great Sweet Potato Giveaway that  took place with the help of Simon Russell.  “Makawao Strong was there lending muscle.  That day we gave away around 16,000 pounds of sweet potatoes but I don’t count it in the total,” she said.

One last puzzle in the distribution piece was finally solved and again, it was an example of partnership and meeting needs. 

“In May 2021, we were able to partner up with the Maui Food Bank. This took a great burden off our shoulders. We could source dry goods through them, so we didn’t have to continuously ask for donations,” she recounted.

“We still try to source fresh produce through local farmers, although with the drought it has been hard for them,” said Nakashima. “Common Ground Collective has been providing fresh fruit when they can harvest, which has been a great help. And Haleakalā Ranch has been so dedicated in donating ground beef for every event we have had.”

PC: courtesy of Upcountry Strong
Andy Gross
Andy Gross is an experienced journalist who has worked many places both abroad and in Hawaiʻi. He says he has never lost his curiosity, compassion or empathy for the people, the world and the conditions that surround him.
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