When Schoolchildren Drank Wine

I always enjoy researching a subject on the internet, although it is sometimes not the most efficient way to do it. I have a tendency to follow links which take me further and further away from the original idea. I have wanted to write a piece about the wine that the Romans produced for some time, and was reading an interesting article which talked about them giving wine to children. The author drew a parallel with the wine that was given to children in French schools until the 1950s! Hardly believing it I followed the link, and here's what I found.

For decades the French government recommended that children should be allowed half a litre of wine, beer or cider (depending upon what was produced locally) per day. And it was in fact the school which supplied it! Wine in particular was considered effective in protecting the children against microbes and viruses and stimulated growth. Don't forget that a century before, the great Louis Pasteur had called wine "le plus sain et le plus hygienique des boissons" (the healthiest and most hygienic of drinks). Wine in particular was considered healthier than other alcoholic drinks as the levels of alcoholism and general ill-health were lower in wine-producing areas.

In the late 1930s, politician Pierre Mendès-France (you must have seen his name on a street sign) had advocated and executed trials in his Normandy constituency's schools where milk was given to the pupils. However, the onset of war put a stop to it before any results could be gleaned. But as President of the Council of Ministers in the 1950s, he set about trying to end schooltime boozing once and for all. This time he had the results of a study that had been conducted at a school in Montgeron in the Parisian suburbs in 1951. Wine and cider had been replaced with milk and the childrens' height and weight were regularly monitored. At the time, malnutrition was more of a problem than obesity! The children gained weight and their growth rate increased. Mendès-France jumped on this as of 1954. He also had the results of a study that had just been published which showed the effects of alcoholism in France. Children were heavily impacted and the social fall out was huge. He finally got his way, when all alcohol was banned for under 14s at the "rentrée" in 1956 and would be replaced with a glass of milk and a lump of sugar. The ban would not be expanded to older children until 1981! The amounts allowed were reduced though.

However, after decades of being told that children should drink wine, this decision was met with some scepticism. Apparently many parents were not too happy and would give their children their daily ration before they set off for school, leaving them red-faced and snoozing on their desks. Mendès-France was also accused of simply pushing the interests of the dairy farmers from his native Normandy. It seems incredible that only 64 years ago children as young as 7 were being encouraged to booze at school and that just 40 years ago teenagers could have a demi or a ballon de rouge at the cantine. 

 The mid 1950s marked the start of the decline in alcohol consumption in France. It is now around one third of what it was in 1950!

April 21st 2020

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