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France to invest €6 million in free breakfasts at public schools

Georges Gobet, AFP | A table laid with plastic plates and glasses at a public school cafeteria in the southern French city of Bordeaux on September 13, 2017

A number of French public schools have begun serving free breakfast to students as part of a new government programme aimed at improving student performance by combatting hunger.

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French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer and Junior Health and Solidarity Minister Christelle Dubos on Tuesday announced 6 million in initial funding for the free breakfast programme, which will be put in place at public schools that have been identified as “priority education network” (réseau d'éducation prioritaire or REP) establishments as well as in some poor urban neighbourhoods and rural areas.

“The goal is to allow children to begin the day without an empty stomach, so they stay focused throughout the morning and therefore learn in the best of conditions,” Blanquer and Dubos said in a joint statement ahead of a scheduled breakfast with students in the northern town of Pont-Sainte-Maxence. “The measure will contribute to reducing inequality starting at the earliest age.”

A pilot programme was launched earlier this month in eight areas where schools are already working to serve students a healthy, free meal in the morning: Amiens, the overseas territory of La Réunion, Lille, Montpellier, Nantes, Reims, Toulouse andVersailles.

The programme will be expanded nationwide in the fall, and is expected to provide breakfast to as many as 100,000 schoolchildren once fully operational.

Hunger leads to ‘difficulty learning’

While many nutritionists would agree that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, an estimated 13 percent of students at REP schools arrive in the morning on an empty stomach.

Yet studies have shown that skipping breakfast can leave children hungry and easily distracted, making it harder for them to participate in the classroom.

“Insufficient nourishment during school hours contributes to students’ difficulty learning,” the inspector general of France’s national education system wrote in a 2015 report on extreme poverty and academic success.

France is not the only country to experiment with offering free breakfast in schools. The United Kingdom found that students’ performance generally improved after rolling out a similar programme in 2014.

“As well as reducing hunger, breakfast clubs were perceived to improve concentration and behaviour in class and to improve punctuality for some pupils,” the UK Department for Education found in a 2017 report. “Additional positive impacts on pupils’ social development and the way in which they helped some pupils make wider friendship groups and become more confident were also highlighted by schools.”

Following the breakfast clubs’ success, the British government announced last year that it was expanding them from 184 to 1,770 schools nationwide.

There are now hopes that the programme in France will meet with similar results.

The measure was first announced in September by French President Emmanuel Macron as part of a broader €8.5 billion initiative to fight against poverty.

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