04/08/2014 05:03 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

The Case for Produce

A new study has found that eating fruits and vegetables could literally save your life. Nice to know, but I'll keep eating them just because they taste good.

Growing up in Ohio as the daughter of Iranian parents meant frequently having to explain my lunches to classmates. They would ask questions like, "Why is your rice green?" or "Wait, that's a real tongue, like from an actual lamb?" or "What's that smell?" You know, the kinds of things you'd expect kids to ask.

It wasn't until middle school, when a girl asked me what a nectarine was, that I realized just how little fruit Americans ate. How could she not know what a nectarine was? I could understand why she might not be familiar with pomegranates, especially in the late '80s and early '90s before they were popularized as an alleged ingredient in fruit juices, but a nectarine? Really?

That's when I realized something else: I had no idea how to say nectarine in English. In fact, I hadn't learned the names of many fruits and vegetables in English despite being a native speaker. I never had to say nectarine, so I knew it -- and quince and honeydew and eggplant and persimmon and cucumber and more -- only in Farsi. I just didn't have to use those words often enough in the presence of Americans to notice I hadn't learned them. After school, I asked my mom how to say nectarine in English. Shaleel wasn't even close.

As a kid, I ate fruit after nearly every meal. My favorite desserts included fresh carrot juice and crushed frozen cantaloupe. In all, I probably ate well over three times the government's recommended daily servings, and I did so with zero interest in improving my health.

But if my only options were apples, oranges, bananas and grapes, which appeared to be the case in many of my American friends' households, there's no way I would have eaten nearly that much fruit. Variety matters, and there's just so much more produce out there that blows apples and oranges out of the orchard.

Today, I still eat a lot of fruit, but not as much as I did as a kid. Now that I'm paying for my own groceries, I realize that my favorite fruits -- pomegranates, cherries, figs, passion fruits, lychees, starfruits -- also happen to be among the priciest. And despite the seemingly endless varieties of genetically-modified apples available nowadays, they rarely taste as good as they used to.

Nevertheless, there is still good fruit to be found if one knows where to look. Local farmers markets and international grocery stores often carry excellent produce, though it still tends to be expensive.

High prices, geographic disparities in availability and the misguided demonization of all sugars (including the natural ones found in fruits) have deprived many Americans of some of the most delicious and curative foods on the planet.

Finding any produce, let alone good and affordable produce, in many low-income urban areas is all but impossible. Given obesity disproportionately affects the poor in this country -- no big surprise given the widespread accessibility of fast and cheap processed foods -- it's worth reconsidering the way we grow, view and sell fruits and vegetables. Whether it's by promoting more community gardens or providing more agricultural subsidies for fruit and vegetable farmers who aren't in the corn or soy business, it's time to make produce more readily available and less costly in every neighborhood.

Doing so can not only save lives, it can also save money in the long run by improving our overall health and thereby reducing future medical costs to treat obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

To get Americans to start eating more fruits and vegetables, however, we must do more than provide equal access and more affordable prices. We must stop billing produce as a "health food," and instead remind and in some cases teach people how diverse and delicious members of the plant kingdom can be.

I recently had one such opportunity while purchasing passion fruit at my local supermarket. After punching in the proper code, the cashier looked up at me: "You do know these are $2.99 a piece, right?" "Yes," I replied. "Have you ever had one?" She hadn't.

I opened the plastic bag, handed her one of the small wrinkled purple orbs and told her how to eat it, but not before issuing this warning: "They're addictive. It can become an expensive habit." Her reply: "I guess there are worse things to get hooked on." Indeed.