FoodChain works to make local sourcing easy

FoodChain arrives to connect growers and buyers, then is acquired by the Dohmen Co. Foundation.
illustration of farmers farming the land with an app in the background

When the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Discovery to Product program mentioned FoodChain as an example of a recent success story, I was intrigued. How our traditional, factory-farm-dependent food system works (or doesn’t) has always interested me. It seemed like that’s what FoodChain, a digital solutions startup, had set out to disrupt with its simple but powerful concept: offering an online marketplace where local grocers, restaurateurs and corporate campuses can buy directly from local farmers and producers.

So I called the startup’s founders — recent college graduates Jake Levitt and Ben Winters. This was in March, just days before Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order took effect. Levitt and Winters were working out of StartingBlock and FEED Kitchens with 25 producer accounts representing 60 local farms.

FoodChain was only 14 months old and suddenly the world seemed to be grinding to a halt. The fledgling founders sounded cautious but hopeful.

“As all this craziness continues to unfold, we think that a lot of our purchasers have a lot bigger things on their plate than figuring out a new way to locally source,” Levitt says. “But there are a lot of issues regarding food systems that the coronavirus is negatively impacting, and we think that with our system and our technology, we’re able to provide opportunities.”

COVID-19 fears have motivated many folks to shop safely and efficiently while also trying to keep our neighbors’ businesses afloat. That’s what Winters and Levitt, who have been friends since the age of 2, were already envisioning before the virus. Food wasn’t really on their radar when they went off to college — Winters to UW–Madison, Levitt to Tulane University in New Orleans.

“It was crazy to me to think that we’re all really involved with these food systems, multiple times every day, but we don’t really stop to consider the social and environmental impacts of how that food is produced and how it actually gets to our plate,” says Levitt, who credits Tulane’s Changemaker Institute’s focus on socially driven ventures with opening his eyes to the inequities, inefficiencies and lack of transparency within the U.S. food system. In November 2018 during their senior year, Levitt and Winters hatched their business plan and decided to build the company in Madison.

“Combined with the tech hub that Madison is becoming and the farm state that Wisconsin is, it really provided ample opportunity for us to enter this market without too many barriers to entry,” Levitt says. “People were open to the idea.” They graduated in May 2019 and Winters’ friend, fellow UW–Madison student Billy Finn, came on as lead developer. FoodChain went through both the gBeta and Madworks accelerator programs. They spent months immersed in the local food ecosystem, introducing themselves to farmers, chefs, grocers, employers and food system advocates. They learned purchasers often want to source locally, but it’s a lot of work buying from dozens of different small-scale producers. With FoodChain, those producers create individual profiles listing their products, and purchasers go to one website to place orders with as many producers as they wish. FoodChain then contracts with local distribution companies to deliver the goods.

A month after we spoke, everything changed again for Winters and Levitt — this time, for the better: Milwaukee’s Dohmen Co. Foundation acquired their company. Dohmen is a 162-year-old health care company that transitioned to a private, philanthropic foundation in 2019. Its website says it is “on a mission to revitalize people and communities using food as the primary intervention.” Terms of the deal are undisclosed and future details are in flux, but the FoodChain founders are staying on. Dohmen Marketing and Communications Vice President Anna Janusz says FoodChain got right to work helping Dohmen’s portfolio food brands switch to local sourcing, and that the intention is to combine both companies’ missions.

“The goal is that FoodChain can continue to grow and expand and build out scale,” says Janusz, “to not only serve Madison and Dane County and Milwaukee, but beyond.”

Maggie Ginsberg is a monthly columnist and senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.