The Carolina Journal - a publication of the John Locke Foundation - first reported the Jan. 30 incident. It said an as yet unidentified state employee told the West Hoke Elementary School student that her lunch, which was packed by her mother, was not nutritious and did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines.
It happened while state officials were checking at the school to make sure meals met USDA rules.
Instead, the child's lunch of a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice was allegedly replaced with school cafeteria chicken nuggets. The student also brought home a bill for the cost of the school lunch she had to eat instead.
The state's Health and Human Services Department, which is investigating the claim, issued a statement, which reads in part: "We have determined that no employee of DHHS, nor the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) or its contractors, instructed any child to replace or remove any meal items. Furthermore, it is not DHHS' policy to inspect, go through or question any child about food items brought from home." (Read full statement here.)
Instead, the agency says it gave the little girl milk to offset a missing dairy item.
The statement continues: "If this means offering an additional food item to a child to achieve that goal, this agency is meeting its objectives."
Speaking with ABC11 Wednesday afternoon, district officials also said the incident seemed more like a misunderstanding.
Assistant Superintendant Bob Barnes said the official didn't tell the child she had to replace her lunch with chicken nuggets. Instead, they told her she had to go through the line and get some milk - per federal guidelines - and she misunderstood and replaced her entire lunch.
"I think that the child became confused about what she had to do. I think the child, instead of going over and picking up the milk, I think the child, for whatever reason, thought she had to go through the line and get a school meal which, that's not our policy," said Barnes.
The Carolina Journal spoke with the child's mother who said she felt like the meal she packed was perfectly healthy.
The child's grandmother also spoke with ABC11, but asked not to be identified. She said she also felt like there was nothing wrong with the home packed meal.
"It is very healthy. She had her dairy, she had her protein, and she had her grains," said the grandmother.
"We are not the lunch bag police. But if we observe that a child who has brought their lunch is missing one of the key components of the healthy meal, we simply say, if it's milk, here's some milk, you may have it or not," said Barnes.
The grandmother said the state should not be inspecting lunches and that the focus should be on academics instead.
"Get your priorities straight," she said. "Stay out of my kid's lunchbox, or grandchildren's for that matter."
In response to this incident, Congress members Larry Kissell and Renee Elmers penned a letter to Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Agriculture Department Secretary. (Read the letter here.)
It says this incident is a terrible example of "government overreach" and calls it a waste of money and an embarrassment to North Carolina Schools.