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Free Lunch Helps Soviet Pensioners Survive on Paltry Pensions

November 26, 1991

LYUBERTSY, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ At the Tomilinsk Industrial Poultry Association, there is such a thing as a free lunch.

A happily cackling group of elderly former employees sits down here to a free meal every weekday at the farm’s cafeteria, a gift from the factory to help them survive on their meager pensions.

″I never eat breakfast,″ confessed Anna Sugrobova, 76, who started working at the chicken farm in 1948. ″If I do, I don’t have enough room for lunch.″

The chicken farm’s three-course free lunches exemplify a growing number of independently run programs in the Soviet Union aimed at helping people who can’t make it on their own without assistance.

For decades, no real charity organizations were allowed because the Communist government claimed poverty and unemployment didn’t exist. But as the nation struggles toward a market economy, an increasing number of people are in need of an additional boost.

″This is the second year we’ve offered free lunches, but we don’t limit them only to people who have already retired,″ said cafeteria director Galina Skvortsova, a cheerful woman who presided over the canteen as if it were a hotel restaurant. ″Anyone who needs lunch can come here.

″We mainly feed older women who have no relatives or anybody to take care of them.″

Before the canteen opened, a line of carefully bundled-up women had already formed outside the dilapidated brick building that houses it, jostling to be first.

An enormous metal chicken perched atop a large grain silo in the distance.

Real chickens - more than 2 million of them - were locked inside their coops.

Monday’s menu featured a simple carrot and cabbage salad to start off, followed by a hearty pea soup and a side dish of either buckwheat kasha or blini, traditional Russian pancakes.

The main dish was, of course, chicken.

″There’s nothing to buy in the stores and the lines are horrible,″ complained pensioner Mariya Fiofilova, 69, sitting down with a loaded tray.

Because she is a World War II veteran, Fiofilova receives a relatively high monthly pension of 250 rubles - $450 at the inflated official exchange rate. But the gray-haired former field worker still finds prices so high she must rely on free lunches.

″Sausage costs 55 rubles a kilo 3/8″ she exclaimed. ″Where can you get that kind of money?″ Fifty-five rubles is $99 at the official rate.

Charity programs like the one at Tomilinsk are financed almost exclusively by employees of state-run enterprises, who vote to use their trade union dues or profits for this purpose, said Vladimir Oleinik, chief of the Russian legislature’s Charity Committee.

He said that although such programs are springing up throughout the country - providing the destitute with food, clothing, housing and health care - a need still exists for more government-paid incentives.

″We had poor people before perestroika, but Communist ideology and the Soviet leadership said that was impossible and that under socialism everyone lived great,″ he said.

Mariya Larikova, 78, a former chicken farm employee, was packing glass jars with buckwheat and putting pancakes into a plastic bag to take to a housebound friend, unable to do his own marketing.

Senior citizens often have neither the money to buy goods sold at state- subsidized prices nor the energy required to wait in line, sometimes for hours, to obtain state-subsidized food.

Larikova said she eats almost exclusively at the farm’s cafeteria because it’s ″too difficult to buy food in the stores.″

Sugrobova, who survives on a 183-ruble ($329) monthly pension, said she can’t shop herself because a bad leg keeps her from standing in line or carting home heavy packages.

″It’s too hard to stand in line at the stores when your legs hurt,″ the old woman said, looking fondly at the brown bread she had piled up to take home.