MOSCOW -- The American meals being plunked down at the nondescript canteen on Lyublin Street yesterday were welcome, of course -- as welcome as soup out of a can, corn out of a can, a pork chop out of a can and pudding out of a can can be.
Fresh tulips were placed on the tables for the occasion. A Salvation Army choir sang uplifting hymns in English. The Russians were tolerant, but they had come to eat.
These were the very first of 16 million meals that are being airlifted, with great fanfare, to the former republics of the Soviet Union.
They are going to people who are hard-pressed -- but not hungry. They will make all the difference and they will make no difference.
Maria Terekhova, a 75-year-old widow with snowy hair and bright blue eyes, was by turns grateful, choosy, embarrassed and despairing yesterday. She's a regular at the Lyublin Street canteen, which serves one free meal a day to about 250 pensioners living below the poverty line. The canteen is sponsored by a Russian construction company called Feniks.
The American food, Mrs. Terekhova said, was a great improvement on the usual soup and kasha, or porridge. On her 340-ruble-a-month pension she can afford to buy little more than bread and potatoes for herself, so the canteen is a lifeline, but a dreary one.
Now, for the next four or five months, she can enjoy the variety and protein that six tons of U.S. canned goods -- leftover U. S. military rations from the Persian Gulf war -- will provide.
The canteen is one of 31 sites that within the next week or so will be serving American food in Moscow -- to the elderly, to orphans, to thehandicapped, to the homeless.
All will be operating under the watchful eye of Sven Ljungholm, an imposing 6 foot 6 inches tall and one of two full-time American Salvation Army officers stationed in Moscow.
Captain Ljungholm has deployed his Salvation Army volunteers to ride shotgun on the American food as it goes from warehouse to kitchen to table.
After earlier food aid from the West reportedly disappeared into the Russian black market, U.S. officials asked the Salvation Army here to supervise distribution.
With the organization's 125-year track record of doing business in some of the seedier parts of the world, this was no big deal, Captain Ljungholm said.
"I'd do the same if I was shipping food from Kennedy Airport into Manhattan," he said. "It's just good business practice."
But to entrust the distribution to a skeletal organization like the Salvation Army here helps to underscore just how symbolic the American foodaid will be. In a city of 9 million, only a very few will ever actually eat it.
Will this aid help Russia, Mrs. Terekhova, one of the lucky ones, was asked.
"Nyet!" she fairly shouted. "It's just one drop in the sea."
So far, said Olga Zhavoronovkova, the canteen director, she has not had a shortage of food. In fact, she had been serving fresh food, now replaced by the canned American food.
The American donors hope, however, that the aid will take some of the pressure off the faltering food distribution system here. The Russian Trade Ministry reported yesterday that the nation has only a 19-day supply of meat and poultry in warehouses, a month's supply of butter and a 20-day supply of vegetable oil.
Prospects for replenishment are gloomy. Cattle is being slaughtered because of the lack of fodder. Farmers looking ahead to planting can't find spare parts for their machinery, and new equipment is too expensive,Trade Ministry officials said.
Yesterday's delivery was part of Operation Provide Hope, the aid plan drawn up during an international conference in Washington in January. The United States will send 54 airplanes over the next two weeks throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Japanese delivered 12 tons of medicine and food to Khabarovsk in the Far East. A German delivery brought 100 tons of food and medicine to Moscow.
For all the problems it can't solve, the aid will go toward making the lives of a few, such as Mrs. Terekhova, a little brighter.
She worked 40 years in a military factory. Now she lives alone. She is widowed and has almost nothing. Her daughter died in World War II. The injections she needs to ease her arthritis eat up half her pension. Other than the daily midday meal at the canteen, all she can afford at home is potatoes, bread and tea.
"We deserve better treatment," she said. "I've worked for all those 40 years, and I gave my life for nothing. Now, I'm thrown overboard.
"What kind of friends can you have at this age? I live in this city totally alone. I have nobody to help me."
She takes two buses to reach the canteen. Until now, she said, the portions were small and the food was "unclean."
"We at least will get a good meal now, and that makes a difference. Ofcourse, it would be better to get two meals a day than one. On the whole, I would like to see even better quality."
Still, the elderly widow has her pride.
"Well, it's humiliating, very, very humiliating," she said. "But you ought to help us. Shortly, when we get out of this calamity, we won't need your help. But for today, thank you very much."
The Salvation Army has been working here since November -- with refugees, the homeless, veterans, alcoholics, people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Captain Ljungholm's grandfather, a Swede, established the first Salvation Army outpost here in 1913, and ran it until 1923, when the Communist government closed it down. He worked in New York for six years, and before that in Baltimore, from 1966 to 1968. His daughter is currently studying at the University of Maryland Nursing School.
"You hear Russians out on the street say to those coming in to one of our centers, 'You should be ashamed of yourself, accepting charity from the West,' " Captain Ljungholm said. "It may be charity, but we see it as social work -- of a kind not done here otherwise."