In the Nov. 5 election, Cedar Rapids voters will choose three members for city council.
Incumbent Scott Overland is challenged by Sofia Mehaffey in District 2. There are two open at-large seats and three candidates running: incumbent Ann Poe, Patrick Loeffler and Jorel Robinson. Incumbent Scott Olson is running unopposed in District 4.
Little Village is interviewing the five city council candidates in contested races. These interviews are a follow-up from the candidate guide that was published earlier this month.
Sofia Mehaffey is the director of community health and nutrition programs at Horizons: A Family Services Alliance, where she oversees its large Meals on Wheels program. The program, which provides fresh and nutritious food to seniors and others in need, served over 300,000 meals last year.
Mehaffey is involved with various organizations in the community, including the city’s Wellbeing Advisory Committee and Family Promise of Linn County, and she is completing a term on the Linn-Mar School Board.
“All of that sort of feeds into what I would hope would be work done by local government,” the District 2 candidate said about her community involvement.
Mehaffey’s own experience living with food insecurity and poverty, and her work at Horizons, led her to prioritize food insecurity as one of the three major focuses of her campaign, along with public health and senior issues.
When Mehaffey was 19, she moved to Cedar Rapids with her two children.
“I was a single mother of two, and we lived in poverty on government assistance,” Mehaffey told Little Village earlier this month. “What happened over the next decade was miraculous — because of the community support [in Cedar Rapids], I was able to achieve masters-level education, escape the cycle of poverty and give back to the community in a truly meaningful role with Horizons.”
Closely associated with food insecurity is the issue of food deserts. Earlier this month, Mehaffey posted a photo on her campaign’s Facebook page showing the areas where residents have difficulty accessing food.
“There’s this open space that we haven’t used yet, and it was supposed to be a casino and then that didn’t work out,” Mehaffey said about First and First West in downtown Cedar Rapids. “So they’re asking the community, what should we put there in its place. And some people said ‘water park’ and some people said ‘entertainment,’ and I’m like, ‘food.’ It’s a need that we know exists in the community, and it’s already been identified. So incentivizing something in that regard would also be a community benefit.”
Mehaffey said there are many ways to address food insecurity, beyond the First and First West option.
She decided to include public health as one of her campaign focuses because “so much falls within public health.”
“I think about accessibility in terms of the functionality of sidewalks, walkability, access to transportation,” Mehaffey said. “These are all public health issues that fall in the same category. So I could narrow it down in that way, while still speaking to a broad variety of issues.”
Accessibility is also an important senior issue, Mehaffey said. She recalled a time when she and a city staff member attended the Linn County Senior Task Force. At the meeting, the question of how many benches are needed on the county’s trail system was raised. Mehaffey said she hadn’t initially thought of bench placement as an accessibility issue for seniors, but at the meeting, she immediately saw its importance.
“Of course, you need more park benches because everybody wants to be able to access trails,” Mehaffey said. “For some people, standing up for extended periods of time or walking for extended periods of time without the ability to sit down is a barrier.”
“It’s really important to be able to bring those things together and really consider in the beginning all of the people in the community so that everything that we do is mindful of the people that we’re serving, and it’s not just this very finite population.”
Mehaffey said making sure all voices are heard and addressing barriers to communication is important. She said she wants to ensure everybody’s needs are being considered. Part of that is exploring how city news can be distributed better, or platforms beyond public meetings or forums through which people’s views can be shared.
“I would really hope that what I can bring to the council is some perspective from having worked with people who don’t necessarily always have the loudest voice,” Mehaffey said. “One of the things that is lamented often by service providers is the lack of representation of people actually going through these experiences of food insecurity or poverty when we’re having some of these conversations, but they’re working two and three jobs. They can’t always be there.”
“I think we just need to investigate how to really let people know that things are happening, how to make them accessible. Maybe even consider means of engagement that don’t involve someone having to physically go to a place, because for some people that can be challenging, or can trigger anxiety responses or all kinds of things.”