The neatest solution would be to pick up basic items at stores that offer the fairest prices, and to pick up items whose quality depends greatly on growing and shipping conditions at a farmers' market or co-op. In theory at least, that could rein in the budget without sacrificing high nutritional value and plain old deliciousness.

But ours is not a nation where people walk from market to market; with few exceptions, we do not have time to drive to the bakery, the butcher, the roadside farm stand. Our experiment, in fact, proved just how difficult it can be to source everything from a farmers' market. The only chickens for sale at Tower Grove are frozen, complicating our plans to shop on Saturday morning for our Saturday evening meal. Our solution was to make a separate trip to the Maplewood Farmers' Market a few days before, giving the chicken plenty of time to thaw before Saturday. That worked beautifully — but how many families have energy for that kind of maneuvering, much less the time to plan ahead?

Indeed, most families probably rely on one-stop shopping for convenience's sake, a decision that comes with a cost. If that one place is somewhere like Schnucks, the "cost" might be subpar tomatoes. And if that place is Whole Foods, the cost is literal: We're paying $4.99 for a roll of kitchen twine and $6.99 for a box of salt.

Another part of our experiment suggested just how much foodies (or those simply pressed for time) may overpay for staples as a result.

Recall, for a moment, the perfectly baked Schnucks cake that sent one tester into a food reverie. Its ingredients cost $30.10, which included three extra pounds of sugar and a big bag of pine nuts for future recipes.

At Whole Foods, our shoppers were able to purchase much smaller portions. Yet the cake-related part of their grocery list alone rang up to $40.10, exactly $10 higher than Schnucks — even as their cake ended up nowhere near as good as the one from Schnucks.

For the baking portion of our meal, at least, cooking skill mattered more than the labels on the food. Which goes to show: You can spend all you like on sea salt and eggs fresh from the family farm. But if you don't know how to sift and you're making gooey butter cake, you're still in trouble.

The four meals made, the cooks — joined by significant others and a sixteen-month-old with an adventurous palate — sat around the dinner table to share food, wine and tasting notes.

As predicted during prep time, the salads made with Schnucks and Whole Foods ingredients both disappointed, owing to pedestrian tomatoes that lacked any real tang. The Pete's Shur-Sav salad was doomed by its ersatz goat-cheese concoction, which tasted about as good as it looked; after one or two experimental bites, these salads sat largely untouched.

Then there was the farmers' market salad, about which one diner said — as if experiencing a revelation — "these tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes!" That they did: juicy, tart tomatoes perfectly complemented by the chèvre and the vinaigrette. The side-by-side comparison threw the inadequacy of the supermarket tomatoes into high relief. Without the farmers' market tomatoes as a touchstone, the others would likely seem "fine," the kind of workmanlike tomatoes that you find atop a cheeseburger or nestled in a BLT.

The differences among the four roasted chickens were just as stark. All arrived at the table with the same lovely golden skin, appearing as though they would each be equally heavenly.

The first forkfuls put the lie to that.

According to one diner, the Pete's Shur-Sav bird was "the chicken of my childhood" — but that was not a nostalgic compliment. Rather, the diner explained, the chicken reminded him of the tough, dry birds he'd eaten as a kid. Even with all of the water injected into this chicken, and despite the butter massaged liberally into its skin, its factory-farmed, dry taste could not be overcome. The Schnucks chicken proved a bit better, although diners had to take care to eat around several unappetizing globules of fat. The moistness was there, but the flavor wasn't; this too was the bland chicken of our childhoods, better suited for a casserole than for whole-roasting.

Far more luscious was the Whole Foods chicken, with its crackling skin and plentiful meat, but the real star was the Maplewood Farmers' Market chicken, sourced from Farrar Out Farm, 90 miles south of St. Louis. This was the ideal specimen: completely fork-tender and tasting like chicken — earthy, juicy, perfect chicken. (The Farrar Out Farm chicken was a particular hit with the sixteen-month-old, who did what everyone else secretly wanted to do — dive into the plate face-first.)

For both the foodies and the novice gourmands in the room, the results of our little experiment were clear. Clear, and disappointing, in that we'd wanted to be proven wrong but weren't — locally sourced ingredients, farm-fresh and seasonally appropriate, simply taste best.

This was a foreseeable but wholly unsatisfying conclusion, because there remains that lingering question: How can we help everyone in our communities eat better? We cannot accept with a clear conscience that tasty tomatoes and non-rubbery chicken are available primarily to those with enough time to shop at various places and enough money to pay $4 per pound at the farmers' market.

The argument becomes not just one of taste, but of health and equality. When these inequities are immediately visible on the plate — and quickly confirmed by the palate — we know we have work to do.

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