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Posted: Saturday, 15 January 2022 09:30


When French Children were allowed to drink Wine in School Canteens

Jan 15: It seems ironic that when the Indian Constitution written in 1949 sought to totally ban alcohol in India, French wine culture was so strong that even children were allowed to drink wine in school and in fact, it was a part of their tiffin till 1956 when the doctors realised the harm alcohol could do to the body and only 14 year olds were allowed, with a total ban in 1981, writes Subhash Arora who believes children over 16 years should be allowed to taste in front of their parents and the legal age should be 18 years for wine and beer and 21 overall

An elementary school Cafeteria in Evreux (Normandy) in 1906 with wine bottles on the left tableFrance is one of the largest and finest wine producers in the world, and the French have never kept their love of wine a secret. This passion is so ingrained in French culture that until not so long ago, even school children would drink wine between classes.

It is impossible to imagine in today’s society even in France where a remote hint of advertising could land you in jail but it was considered as soup for school kids until the time when the medical fraternity realised it was causing harm to their bodies and an earlier start could result in many turning alcoholics later in life.

Wine, beer and cider used to be sold in the school cafeterias, though it was the choice of schools whether to allow it or not. Many parents would place one alcoholic drink of choice- 500 mL of wine, cider, or beer depending on the region, in the child’s tiffin to take to school. Where the schools did not allow at all, some parents encouraged the children to drink wine with breakfast before going to school. In general, it was available in the school cafeteria where they were encouraged to buy and drink about half a liter daily.

One must remember though that table wine of that time was bottled in one-liter, returnable bottles and usually had only 9-10 % alcohol content and when diluted (to around 4%) it was far from what we call wine today. We should also keep in mind that for centuries, most of the water being unsafe or unreliable, everyone including children and parents would drink diluted wine or cider instead of water.

Until the 1950s, people were under the impression that alcohol killed microbes. In fact, it did appear to help warm the chest when the child was suffering from a cold. Wine was allowed to be advertised nationally which strongly encouraged it for health reasons. Besides, the wine lobby has been extremely strong in France.

At the time, alcohol consumption in France was at its highest and widespread among young people and the decision to place an age limit or ban was not supported by everyone, even by the authorities.

Change in 1956

Boy Scouts at Lunch in late 1970sIn a report in March 1956, the National Advisory Committee on School and University Health recommended a ban on alcohol throughout France after a Study in a boarding school. It was in August 1956, over six years after the Indian Constitution had already been in force since January 1950, that the Ministry of National Education banned serving of alcoholic drinks in schools to children under 14 years old. The older children were still allowed to drink in school cafeterias with the consent of their parents and a limit of one eighth of a liter per head (125 mL-one small glass).

Total ban in 1981

It was 40 years ago in September1981, shortly after the election of François Mitterrand as the French President that alcoholic drinks were totally banned from schools and water became the only drink encouraged at the table. In canteens and school restaurants, no alcoholic beverages were allowed to be served, even if water was cut off, according to Alain Savary, Minister of National Education (1981-84). Most teachers were happy with the ban; apparently the inebriated children would usually end up sleeping through classes or show signs of inattentiveness and hyperactivity.

In an attempt to reduce alcoholism and addiction amongst these children, the tradition was replaced with campaigns to drink milk, with slogans like “To be studious, strong and vigorous, drink milk!” For a video on the subject, you may visit:

The legal age for drinking or buying alcohol in France is 18 years today though people of 16 years’ age can drink in the company of their parents. 58% of total alcohol consumption in France is wine. On average, French over 15 years’ age, drink 11.7 liter wine a year. There are still 41,000 deaths attributed to alcohol, with females forming 11,000 of this number.  

Subhash Arora



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