Texas Tech University

Researcher Passionate About Nutrition Education for Low-Income Groups

Glenys Young

February 3, 2020

Mary Murimi studies how food-insecure households cope to guide safety-net policy.

In February, Texas Tech is once again highlighting the outstanding research being conducted by our talented and dedicated Red Raiders through our "TTU ❤️ Research" series. This year, we are pairing this effort with Black History Month in order to feature our influential black faculty and students who have had a tremendous impact through their research. This is the first in this series.

At first glance, the fields of education and nutrition may not seem to have much of a connection. But as an undergraduate student in Kenya, Mary Murimi witnessed firsthand what happens to people's nutrition when they don't have proper education.

As a data collector for a study on malnourished children, she was supposed to shadow each family for three days, documenting the types of food children were eating and how often. Initially, she was confused by what she saw.

"While the children were malnourished, there were chicken and eggs and fruit trees and vegetables in the home," Murimi said. "However, they took all the fruits and vegetables to the marketplace and brought white bread, sugar and sugar-added drinks home.

"I realized that those children were malnourished because the parents did not have nutrition information."

Thus began her lifelong quest to study nutrition at the community level and teach the next generation of researchers its importance.

Three decades later, Murimi is still doing just that. Now a registered dietitian and professor in the Texas Tech University Department of Nutritional Sciences, she leads the Community and International Nutritional Research Lab, where she and her students focus on bringing community-based nutrition-education programs to low-income populations to improve their nutrition, health and quality of life.

"I target low-income and minority populations as their issues are less understood," Murimi said. "For example, while food insecurity is a national issue, I am interested in understanding the coping strategies of food-insecure households. This understanding helps policy makers understand the importance of safety nets.

Recently, this has included work in the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood, but her efforts aren't all close to home. For 10 years, Murimi conducted research through black churches in rural Louisiana. She tested participants' blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol – the leading factors that contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure, conditions that disproportionately affect black people. Immediately after the testing, her team provided individualized counseling to the participants, promoting healthy dietary practices and exercises.

As a result, groups from the participating churches came together to exercise. They even opened those exercise groups to the community, extending their impact.

"Several of those groups are still exercising together," she said proudly.

Murimi is now having a far-reaching impact on a global scale.

In addition to being an adviser for numerous international graduate students, Murimi is actively involved in nutrition education in other parts of the world. As chancellor of Daystar University in Kenya, she has been working with the faculty to build their research capacity. In Ethiopia, where she serves as an adjunct professor at Hawassa University, she is investigating the underlying factors for childhood malnutrition among rural households. In Vietnam, she is collaborating to train dietitians and identify the nutritional profiles of native plants.

"At the international level, we investigate factors that result in childhood malnutrition and then develop an intervention to address the causes of childhood malnutrition," Murimi said. "Currently my lab is focusing on effective nutrition education for behavior change and understanding the effects of food insecurity."