Parents, Julie and Tony Bombacino, Create Real Food Blends for Their Tube-Fed Son
Tony Bombacino loves food. The father of two comes from a big Italian family and knows his way around the kitchen. When Bombacino’s son, AJ, was born, he was excited to share his love of cooking with him. But sharing that love proved difficult when Bombacino found out that his son, at six months old, would need a feeding tube to eat for the rest of his life.
To help his son, Bombacino and his wife, Julie, started Real Food Blends – meals made from real food that people can ingest through their feeding tube. The idea for their company came from their own experiences trying to provide their tube-fed son with a nutritious and easily digestible meal.
‘It’s been a five-year journey,” Bombacino said in an interview. “For the first six months of his life, AJ was a happy kid. He was a little crabby and a slow eater, but given our experience being parent’s already we just thought he had reflux.”
Everything changed when AJ had a 45-minute seizure out of the blue, Bombacino said describing the incident. “All of the sudden our lives were turned upside down. The doctors were doing all kinds of crazy tests… It’s 3 a.m. and I can picture Julie and I sitting on the hospital floor as the doctor tells us AJ has malformations of cortical development.”
Because of the malformation in AJ’s brain, AJ’s brain is smaller than average – creating developmental delays. “The real hard part is when you’re told what that means,” Bombacino said. “When you’re told your child might not walk or talk.”
‘I Hate to Tell You This, But Your Son Needs a Feeding Tube’
The next few months left the Bombacinos in a trance. “AJ kept having seizures, about one or two a week,” he said. Not only was AJ having seizures, his reflux seemed to be getting worse. “We took AJ to the doctor’s and set up a swallow study,” he said. AJ failed the swallow study, leading to more difficult news. “The doctor said to us, ‘I hate to tell you this, but your son needs a feeding tube,’” Bombacino said. “We didn’t even know what that was.”
After three days in the hospital, AJ was sent home from the hospital with a gastrostomy tube (g-tube), which delivers food directly to AJ’s stomach. Over the next few months, the Bombacinos adjusted to AJ’s newest diagnosis and caring for their son’s feeding tube. While Julie and Tony were adjusting, AJ was not. None of the commercial formulas they tried seemed to sit well with AJ.
Against the advice of AJ’s doctors, who were afraid real food would clog the feeding tube, the Bombacinos started blending meals for their son. “We bought an expensive blender, a Vitamix, and started blending real foods,” Bombacino told The Mighty. “After eating real foods AJ stopped throwing up, he had better complexion and his hair started growing.”
From then on, under the guidance of doctors and nutritionists, the Bombacinos slowly switched their son to a fully blended diet. The aha moment for their business didn’t come until months later. “It wasn’t until we were planning a trip to Disney that we realized how much work it would be,” Bombacino said. “We’d have to pack the blender and go food shopping… We wondered if there was anything like what we were making that we could take with us.”
Developing Real Meals for Tube-Fed People
The Bombacinos searched for a comparable product, but couldn’t find a commercial formula similar to the real foods they were feeding their son. Frustrated, Julie and Tony Bombacino decided they would make their own real food product for tube-fed people. “We didn’t think, ‘Let’s start a company,’” Bombacino said. “We just wanted to help our son. We had no experience in the food industry. We were just frustrated parents.”
In 2012, the Bombacinos launched Real Food Blends. They spent the next two years focused on research and development. “Hundreds of thousands of people have feeding tubes,” Bombacino told The Mighty. “Enteral nutrition is a multi-billion dollar market, and most of the formulas on the market, unlike ours, have corn syrup listed as an ingredient.”
After two years of planning, the Bombacinos had created a blended food product similar to what they were making their son in the kitchen of their Chicago home. Their blends, which currently come in three flavors with a fourth launching at the end of the month, are devoid of corn syrup and feature real foods. “If you look at the back of our product, you’ll see all simple ingredients,” Bombacino said. According to Bombacino, each blend contains five to seven ingredients, no preservatives, and is shelf stable for three years. The blends are also made and manufactured in the U.S.
“Imagine if you couldn’t eat tomorrow and you had to rely on formula,” he said. ”You stop being a human being. As a caregiver, it’s demoralizing. We want to bring back mealtime and nutritional value.”
Each Real Food Blends is pureed, so it’s thicker than a formula but thin enough to go through a feeding tube. The blends are covered by many health insurances and can be purchased through home health companies as well as the Real Food Blends website and Amazon.
AJ, who is now 5, is a customer too. When not acting as the company’s chief inspiration officer, AJ can be found in his kindergarten classroom with a Real Food Blends in his lunchbox every day.