Food Tripping: There's no better time than now to get to know what you eat

Summer is a celebration of food. You kick off the season with a barbecue on Memorial Day and end it with a barbecue on Labor Day. During the months in between, you enjoy hot dogs at Busch Stadium and concretes at Ted Drewes, heirloom tomatoes fresh from the vine and sweet corn slathered with butter.

Let's be honest, though. This year's celebration isn't looking so hot. The cost of food is skyrocketing: Meat, milk, even plain old white rice. It doesn't matter where you shop or what foods you like to buy: Your grocery bill is almost certainly on the upswing.

But take a look at one of your recent grocery bills. Do you know where any of the food was raised? Missouri? Probably not. The United States? Not as often as you might expect.

So here's the bad news: You're probably spending more than you ever have in your life for food that likely doesn't come from anywhere close to home. Maybe, just maybe, those two facts are connected.

The good news is, there's no better time of year than summer to learn about the fresh and surprisingly affordable produce you can find right here in St. Louis and Missouri.

The best place to start is at one of the local farmers' markets. There, not only can you find produce so fresh that some of it might have been picked that very day, but you can also meet and talk with the farmers themselves. Want to know what kind of feed a particular farm gives its cattle? Want to learn what makes an heirloom tomato so special? Here's your chance to pick up practical tips on food, cooking and nutrition as well as some fascinating insights into agriculture in the 21st century.

Most farmers' markets take place once a week from May or June through September or October. The roster of participating farmers is often consistent from week to week, but what those farmers are selling each week depends on what is being harvested right now.

You might know the basics of seasonal produce — asparagus in spring, tomatoes in the mid-to-late summer, squash in the fall — but you might also be surprised what turns up when. That's one of the best parts about shopping at farmers' markets: Every week has one surprise, at least, and by the end of your first year you know much more about when certain fruits and vegetables are in season.

Here are some of the area's most popular farmers' markets:

Soulard Market (730 Carroll Street; 314-622-4180 or www.soulardmarket.com): Open year-round from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri. and from 6 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.

Sappington Farmers' Market (8400 Watson Road, Webster Groves; 314-843-7848 or at www.sappingtonfarmersmkt.com): Open year-round from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.

Tower Grove Farmers' Market & Bazaar (4256 Magnolia Avenue; 314-772-3899 or www.tgmarket.org): Located just west of the pool pavilion in Tower Grove Park. Open Saturdays through October 25 from 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

Kirkwood Farmers' Market (150 E. Argonne Drive, Kirkwood; 314-822-0084 or www.kirkwoodjunction.com): Open from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.

Maplewood Farmers' Market at the Schlafly Bottleworks (7260 Southwest Avenue, Maplewood; 314-241-2337 oe www.schlafly.com/market): Open Wednesdays through October from 4-7 p.m.

Clayton Farmers' Market (8282 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-398-9729 or www.claytonfarmersmarket.com): In Straub's parking lot. Open Saturdays through October 25 from 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

Ferguson Farmers' Market (20 S. Florissant Road, Ferguson; 314-324-4298 or fergusonfarmersmarket.com) Open Saturdays until November from 8 a.m.-noon.

Farmers' markets are fantastic, but if you want to learn even more about the food you eat, consider visiting one of the area's independently owned farms. It's a lovely way to spend a day.

How do you set up a visit? One way is to ask the farmers you meet at farmers' markets whether they would be willing to show you around. (Don't take it personally if they say no. Remember: These farms are working businesses, not hobbies.)

One farm that is more than willing to welcome visitors is "R" Pizza Farm. Don't worry: Though it might sound like a pizza-themed amusement park, it's actually a great way for you and, especially, your kids to learn how one of the country's favorite mass-marketed foods has its beginning on the farm.

Located at 25873 Illinois Route 3 in Dow, Illinois, "R" Pizza Farm is shaped like a pie, with each "wedge" dedicated to growing one of pizza's main ingredients: wheat for the crust, tomatoes for the sauce, and so on. Not only do you get to tour the different areas of the farm, but you also get to eat pizza made from those ingredients. The pizza farm is open through October. Call 618-466-5950 for more information or to reserve a guided tour.

Whether you shop for meat at supermarkets or farmers' markets, you're probably quite familiar with phrases like "naturally raised" and "free-range." Buying meat with these buzzwords attached can make you feel good — but what do they actually mean? Visiting a farm that employs such practices can give you a better idea, and make you feel even better about the beef, pork and poultry you put on your table.

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