A business born in a Hoosier family’s kitchen is now a multi-million dollar company—and recently cooked up a national deal that’s extending its reach. After her son was placed on a feeding tube, “a huge lightbulb moment” led Julie Bombacino to create Real Food Blends to broaden what she was already doing in her kitchen: replacing traditional feeding tube formula with real food.
Co-founders Julie and Tony Bombacino originally followed doctors’ and nutritionists’ advice to give their son, AJ, commercial formula for his feeding tube. But when a long list of problems plagued him, Julie says, “We got desperate and frustrated enough to make a change.” Julie began blending food for AJ in her kitchen, putting “real food” in his tube instead, and says “it was like a veil lifted in our household” when he showed great results.
Next came a family vacation to Disney World, and the harsh reality of grocery shopping, packing the blender and preparing AJ’s meals while traveling weighed heavy on his parents.
“We thought, ‘Is there a pouch of a shelf-stable meal that’s 100 percent real food?’ And there wasn’t,” says Tony, who is Real Food Blends chief marketing officer. “Soon thereafter, we were crazy or desperate enough to say, ‘Okay, let’s make that.’”
“When something happens to a loved one health-wise, you’re always looking for a reason why or wanting to make sense of it,” says Julie, who is Real Food Blends chief executive officer. “We thought, in the bigger picture, maybe this is our ‘why’ and has come to us for a reason bigger than just us.”
Noting they both have “an entrepreneurial spark,” the couple created Real Food Blends in 2012, and after two years of research and development, began shipping meals in 2014. The company has now sold more than a million meals, each one with no preservatives, synthetic additives or corn syrup. Due to a high-heat process during production, the meals are shelf-stable with no refrigeration required and carry names like “Salmon, Oats & Squash” and “Beef, Potatoes & Spinach.”
Julie notes that it’s reflex for doctors and dieticians to prescribe formula for tube-fed people, but she says the vast majority are placed on feeding tubes due to neurological dysfunction or an inability to safely get the food into the stomach, not because the stomach or digestive system isn’t working correctly.
“Our meals are a simple concept: putting real food into real stomachs,” says Julie. And for the Italian family, food transcends sustenance, also carrying an emotional aspect.
“When you think about breaking bread, it’s the talking, the connection, the sharing. When you have a feeding tube, you lose some of that, and it becomes this clinical or robotic approach. It becomes, ‘What time is your next feed?’ You talk about it as a ‘feed,’ not a meal,” says Tony. “That takes something from you as a person and from the caregiver. [Real Food Blends] is about pulling your loved one back up to the table for a meal; that’s how we think about things.”
Tony says the company has grown 100 percent each year, and Real Food Blends recently inked a partnership with Coram CVS Specialty Infusion Services, the infusion provider for the national drugstore chain and the largest home infusion and nutrition company in the U.S. Real Food Blends says its meals are covered by medical insurance through durable medical equipment (DME) companies, which tube-fed people are typically assigned to.
“Coram holds about 75 percent of the Medicare contracts in the U.S. to service people who are at home with feeding tubes. Coram is opening that door for Medicare coverage to so many of our customers; that was a missing piece,” says Julie. “Coram is the largest DME with the biggest reach we have carrying our meals at this point, which helps us in a lot of other places where we didn’t have a great DME partner.”
The Bombacinos believe the partnership also helps legitimize “blenderized” diets for tube-fed patients and dieticians, “who have always been taught that ‘feeding tube equals commercial formula;’ we’re trying to break that mold.” The company is optimistic about further growth, noting that medical advances are extending the lives of people with conditions that necessitate feeding tubes.
“We get emails and calls every single day now, and we have almost 70,000 people in our Facebook community telling us how we helped their child or loved one,” says Tony. “We don’t have a cure for cancer, or ALS or brain injury, but if we can in some small way improve things from a nutrition and quality-of-life perspective, that’s very rewarding.”
Julie says Real Food Blends’ approach of creating a variety of meals—instead of formula—is unique in the market.
Tony says Real Food Blends works with university scientists and other food and nutrition experts to develop the meals.
Julie believes the company has “barely scratched the surface” of the marketplace.