A nature that nurtures
Once Julie Branco Bombacino learned how to set her son, A.J., on a course to thrive, she realized others could benefit from her family’s journey. Theirs is a story of hope, nourishment and an ever-widening circle.
The day’s sky is bright in Chesterton, a small Indiana town about 50 miles from Chicago. Winter can be brutal here, powered by winds off nearby Lake Michigan and heavy snow.
Not today. All is calm, and light cascades through a window, suggesting spring.
The light shines like the attitude of Julie Branco Bombacino ’98, standing near the window in an office she never imagined occupying. Her life seemed on a set path when an unexpected detour eventually led her to this room, one of several in a new office for her burgeoning business, Real Food Blends.
“I’m excited,” says Bombacino, co-founder and CEO of the business she and her husband, Tony, launched in their home in 2012. “It feels like a grownup company.”
Bombacino’s voice echoes in the near-barren room, but she’s not alone. Carpenters saw and hammer in the adjoining room. Their industrious pace conveys purpose — not unlike the purpose Bombacino has felt since the day she realized many people with medical conditions weren’t receiving what she considers a fundamental right.
“It’s basic human decency to give people real, nutritious food,” she says.
That was the foundation for the Bombacinos’ mission in creating Real Food Blends, which provides six varieties of shelf-stable, whole-food meals — with ingredients such as salmon, carrots, peaches and kale — for people who rely on feeding tubes for sustenance. The company has sold millions of meals to clients across the nation, from families to children’s hospitals to the Cleveland and Mayo clinics to US Foods, a major food-service corporation.
“We’re so blessed that we could take something bad that happened to us and turn it into our life’s work,” Bombacino says.
Life changed for Bombacino in 2011 when her son, A.J., then 6 months old, experienced a 45-minute seizure and was diagnosed with brain malformations. Now 8, he has relied on enteral nutrition, or tube feeding, ever since. That isn’t expected to change.
A.J. is among an estimated one-half million U.S. children and adults who use feeding tubes — some for their entire lives, others for varying lengths of time. Most ingest liquid formulas that contain corn syrup, preservatives and synthetic additives, including vitamins and minerals, through a tube placed in their nose, mouth, stomach or small intestine.
That process and the number of people dependent on it were invisible to Bombacino until her son’s medical crisis, which left him unable to swallow, speak or walk. “I had no idea what a feeding tube was, or what we were in for,” she says. “You probably pass people with feeding tubes all the time and you just don’t know it. It’s covered up.”
Bombacino’s new perspective provided new purpose. It was as if clouds had parted on a winter day, pouring bright sunshine into a previously unimagined room.
Now, as she stands in her new office, her shoulders shake when she laughs at how her lone intention eight years ago was to find some light.
“This is kind of funny,” says Bombacino, who also has a daughter, Luca, 11. “I wasn’t trying to come up with a company. I had a lot going on in my world.”
‘She was drowning in grief’
Looking back, Bombacino sees a giant fog enveloping that part of her life. She was frazzled and frantic after what seemed like endless days and sleepless nights over six consecutive months.
She had a spoonful of apple baby food from a jar, and she was set to feed it to A.J. Tony was by her side. They didn’t know what to expect. Their baby had vomited every day — sometimes as often as 10 times a day — for half a year, whenever he was tube-fed any of the eight formulas prescribed by doctors.
Feeling desperate, Julie put the baby food into A.J.’s feeding tube. “We literally stood back like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ We were scared,” she recalls.
Fear had stained the Bombacinos’ days following that interminable seizure. Mealtime became especially fraught.
“I had breastfed A.J. for [his first] six months, so every meal he got up to that point was in my arms,” Bombacino says. “Suddenly, with the feeding tube, it became this very medicalized procedure that was not very loving or nurturing. I didn’t feel like his mom. I felt like his nurse or doctor.”
Anxiety hung thick in the home and, as a counter, Tony encouraged his wife to research the topic of tube feeding.
“She was drowning, in many ways, in grief,” he says. “She needed a distraction. She’s super smart and had been a successful businesswoman. I wanted to remind her of that.”
Bombacino had spent more than 15 years in digital and direct marketing leadership roles at various companies, including United Airlines, after graduating from Ohio State and then earning an MBA in marketing from DePaul University. Throughout her educational and professional endeavors, there’s been one constant: “I tend to question things,” she says.
That natural curiosity led Bombacino to serve as editor of The Lantern as a college senior in 1997–98. A year earlier, she interned in the public relations department of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. As a student, the journalism major and business marketing minor also worked as a waitress, which she credits for teaching her to understand other points of view.
All of those experiences later helped mold her passion as a mother and businesswoman into her purpose as CEO of Real Food Blends.
“I don’t think I would have been equipped to start a business, much less start a business in the food and health care arena, had I not had a solid degree and big exposure to a lot of different classes, people and experiences,” Bombacino says. “A lot of people have good ideas, but I was lucky enough that I had a background and education that enabled me to take the idea and put it into a concept and then put it into action.”
Entrepreneurship wasn’t a goal when Bombacino began researching tube feeding. She was simply applying energy into something productive. But her spirits lifted when she saw she wasn’t alone.
“I found my tribe,” Bombacino says, recalling how her internet research led her to the Feeding Tube Awareness Foundation and similar resources. She befriended mothers of special needs children, and her online community gave her insight and strength in numbers. These allies suggested she try blending real food into a thin mixture for A.J.
Feeling empowered, Bombacino placed a tablespoon of that apple baby food into A.J.’s feeding tube. He didn’t vomit. Instead, he digested the food and had a regular bowel movement. His continued progress led her to purchase a high-powered blender and begin pureeing other foods.
A.J.’s positive response to being off prescribed formula wasn’t enough for Bombacino. She looked beyond the walls of her own home. She wondered why packages of blended real food weren’t available for all of the people who had provided her with support online. She envisioned readily available meals in pouches that might make other people’s lives a little easier.
“I didn’t want another person with a feeding tube — or a family with a child, spouse or parent on a tube — thinking real food is no longer an option,” she says.
Tony Bombacino is co-founder of Real Food Blends, but he credits his wife for writing the original business plan and conducting two years of research, including market studies and conversations with mentors, consultants, doctors and registered dietitians.
“She had the mindset to reframe a negative situation,” says Tony, who left his marketing job to become president of Real Food Blends in 2014. “She’s tenacious — kind of a force of nature. She knows how to get things done. She made so many calls and did so much research while in the middle of going through everything with A.J. Plenty of people wouldn’t have had the skills or the mental and emotional capacity. She did. The company doesn’t exist without her.”
Real Food Blends officially launched in January 2014 and in three weeks sold out of its entire first batch of 15,000 meals. The company was profitable by its second year and has increased sales year over year. It has doubled its original product line, now offering six meal varieties. The firm employs 10 registered dietitians across the country as sales representatives and contracts with two manufacturing facilities and three warehouses.
“Julie is so driven. She’s always thinking ahead,” says Megan Garlisch, the company’s project manager. “Sometimes we might push things at her in a different way from a business perspective, but she’ll always say, ‘But is that authentic? We’ve built this huge community. Is that in the best interest of our community? Are we still being true to who we are, what we set out to be at the very beginning?’”
Garlisch says Bombacino still occasionally answers the main office phone, often to customers’ surprise. Such a personal touch also is evident in Indianapolis at the company’s initial warehouse, Crossroads Industrial Services. Crossroads is affiliated with Easterseals, a national program that provides lifelong services — including training and employment — for about 1.5 million people with disabilities.
“Julie is a very kind soul,” says Jeff Gore, who serves as Crossroads’ general manager. “She is a very, very good businesswoman, but she also has the heart of a mission-driven person.”
Nearly three in four of Crossroads’ 65 employees have disabilities, including six people who have done work for Real Food Blends since the company’s contract with the warehouse began in 2014. They work 40 hours a week, earning about $10 per hour and full benefits.
“A lot of what defines you is your job,” Gore says, “and history says one of the highest unemployment rates that we have in our country is [among] people with disabilities. By creating and growing this product — and allowing our employees to do this work for her — Julie has created meaningful jobs. Our individuals are proud to do the work for Real Food Blends because they know it helps people.”
Bombacino visits the Indianapolis facility about four times a year. Gore says the employees enjoy explaining to her how they collect orders, select and box items, create shipping labels and use a forklift to move pallets.
“I could only dare to dream my son may have a job like that one day,” Bombacino says.
‘It all starts with her being a mom’
Night has fallen in Chesterton, but the living room of the Bombacino home is lit up with energy as A.J. stands behind his new walker. He’s surrounded by a circle of encouragement from his parents; his sister, Luca; and nanny Tori Cooper.
“Come on A.J. You can do it,” says Luca.
A.J. looks determined to satisfy the cheers of his supporters, including the excited family dog, Buddy.
Julie and Tony Bombacino call their son Real Food Blends’ CIO, for “chief inspiration officer.” A.J. has epilepsy, autism and cerebral palsy. Doctors also suspect he has a genetic condition, although they don’t know specifically which one. A.J. can’t talk, but understands and recognizes people and things to a degree.
The Bombacinos’ home is a five-minute drive from the company’s new office, but really, there is no separation between these two worlds.
“She lives it every day,” says Garlisch, who has worked for Real Food Blends since its launch. “It all starts with her being a mom. Everything is backed by the love of a mother for her child.”
The love isn’t part of a sales strategy.
Anna Beery ’07 is a dietitian at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center who works with patients with head and neck cancer. Many need a feeding tube, and she says some ask for Real Food Blends because it causes them less nausea, bloating and gas than traditional formulas. Bombacino first contacted Beery on a patient’s behalf two years ago, and the two alums have stayed in touch. However, Beery was unaware of A.J.’s journey when approached for this story.
“I knew a family started [the company], but I never knew it was her family,” Beery says. “I think it says a lot about her. She’s super humble. She’s not trying to sell her story to me. She just wants me to use the product [based on its merits].”
For the Bombacinos, work does blur with real life. A.J. takes four different medications daily, and he still experiences occasional seizures. He wears leg braces, and although he can’t walk, he’s often in motion. Julie now struggles to carry him upstairs since he has grown to 4 feet 6 and 65 pounds. Nights aren’t easy. A.J. typically doesn’t sleep all the way through, and he rises at 5 a.m.
“The challenges aren’t going away. The grief sometimes ebbs and flows, but it continues,” says Bombacino. “Sometimes it hits me if we see other families of four or if there’s a little boy running around playing in the neighborhood who is around A.J.’s age. I’m like, ‘He would be out there with them.’ There wasn’t a happily-ever-after.”
Not that Julie or Tony complain. They swaddle their son in love.
A physical therapist helps A.J. at school, and when he returns home a nurse sometimes assists the family, along with their nanny. A behavioral therapist comes to the home twice a week, often with a supervisor. Friends, neighbors and employees volunteer for carpooling and babysitting.
“There are just constantly people in our home,” she says. “It’s our community.”
Julie calls herself the “worrier in chief,” but she’s able to put her family’s situation in context through daily interaction with Real Food Blends’ customers in phone calls, texts, emails and social media posts. The Real Food Blends page on Facebook has nearly 116,000 followers.
“That’s perspective,” Bombacino says of their network. “It really has been therapeutic for me that we’ve been able to help so many other families.”
The number of those families is constantly growing, as if the tight circle that has formed around one sweet boy on this winter night is spinning out to encircle others with similar challenges.
Like everyone in the room, Julie Bombacino cheers for her A.J. as he moves forward with the walker.
The boy smiles from ear to ear. The mom sees joy.
“A child like mine probably wouldn’t be here had it not been for his tube,” Bombacino says. “I love his tube now.”
Alumni find strength in shared experiences
Feeding tubes are foreign to most people. Thankfully, Julie Branco Bombacino’s research introduced her to a whole community of people who rely on them for their own or a family member’s survival. Their guidance was crucial as she and her husband, Tony, sought solutions to their infant son’s failure to thrive, and she soon envisioned a way to pay forward.
Through Real Food Blends and outreach via personal contact, social media and online chats, Bombacino has been able to hear, reassure and strengthen that community. “One of the things we’re most proud of is the fact that we’ve been able to bring people together,” she says.
Stephanie Feher Krol ’01 understands the Bombacinos’ initial desperation. She recalls being overwhelmed when her son Max needed a feeding tube shortly after birth because of swallowing issues.
“When you’re going through a medical issue in a small town, you kind of feel like the only person,” says Krol, who lives in Bristol, Indiana, population 1,700. “I felt totally isolated.”
When Max was 18 months old, Krol switched him from prescribed formula to Real Food Blends, made entirely from wholesome ingredients. The change helped Max, now 6, and led his mother to a community of support.
Krol reached out to Bombacino, who lived just 75 miles away. They met for coffee and bonded immediately with talk about Ohio State and raising special needs children. A friendship bloomed. Bombacino once accompanied Krol to a medical appointment for Max, providing moral support and a hand to hold.
“I was scared at that point, and Julie gave me the confidence to stand tall, to ask questions, to not stop,” Krol says. “I don’t know what the future is for my son, but I know now that I’m like a tiger mom. I know how to fight for Max, thanks to Julie.”
Sara Warren ’02 and her husband, Erik Warren ’98, live in Upper Arlington, Ohio, close to the alma mater they share with Bombacino. While these three alumni have never met, they feel a kinship. The Warrens’ 11-year-old son, Theo, uses Real Food Blends when tube feeding because of eosinophilic esophagitis, a chronic immune system disease.
“Julie has been through what you’ve been through,” Sara Warren says, “and she had the forethought and the means to make it into something she could help other people with.”