NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The food industry -- fast, slow, greasy or otherwise -- is one of the largest in the world, and one nobody talks about. Much like the housing market with its trickle-down effect, the food industry has many facets that usually aren't considered by everyday consumers.Admittedly, it's easy to do. When you bite into a sandwich or cook a nice dinner, you rarely stop and think, I wonder what chain of events led to this food being in my kitchen? Let's forget for a moment that food is a necessity, unlike many other things such as cars, computers or furniture. While we could get by with rice and potatoes, our country loves food. In a recent study conducted by Kraft Foods Group ( KRFT), 57% of Americans would "go to some length" to keep cheese in their diets. "Go to some length" included 36% of respondents giving up their cell phones for a week, 23% turning off the TV for a month and 39% giving up coffee for a year. Just because it's a necessity, doesn't mean we Americans don't embellish it. That latte from Starbucks ( SBUX) or donut from Krispy Kreme Doughnuts ( KKD) is half the reason some of us get up in the morning. I used to think housing had the biggest trickle-down effect, where perhaps 100 people were needed for a certain product to reach just one person. Housing is easy to understand: Someone digs up the land, pours in the foundation, frames the house, tons of different tradesmen do their individual job to finish the project, then voila! The house gets sold by a realtor (another job) to a family. Food is similar and just as vital to our economy. Think about it. You sit down at a Darden Restaurants ( DRI) location, such as Red Lobster or Olive Garden. You order a steak with corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and for seasonality purposes, an Octoberfest from Boston Beer ( SAM). Pretty standard meal -- but where did it all come from? Let's start with the side dishes. For all intents and purposes, we can assume two different farmers were required to plant the corn and the potatoes.
A company such as Monsanto ( MON), which makes hybrid corn seed, could be used for the planting process and chemicals to protect crops made by DuPont ( DD) (which also produces hybrid seed), may have been applied as well. The farmer and his employees use Deere ( DE) equipment to harvest their crop and get them ready for shipping. As the product is shipped -- which requires more jobs -- and spread across the nation to many different buyers, it ultimately ends up on your plate at the restaurant. This is just for the corn. Steak is similar. A cattle farmer slaughtered, or sold for slaughtering, his cow, which went to a processing plant and ultimately ended up packaged in a freezer truck on its way to the local eatery. Who made that Octoberfest beer? What about the plate and silverware? Don't forget about the waitress that brought your food from the cook in the kitchen, or the Food and Drug Administration employee who tested the meat. See what I mean? The trickle-down effect is incredible and can be applied to just about everything we eat. Including Wal-Mart ( WMT), 11 of the top-50 U.S. employers are food-based. This does not include companies such as Walgreen ( WAG), CVS Caremark ( CVS), or Target ( TGT), although the three of these do sell food. Those 11 companies accounted for 4.33 million of the 11.52 million jobs from the top-50 largest employers. In other words, while only 22% of the list was comprised of food companies, they still accounted for over 37% of the total jobs. In a separate study, full-service restaurants, limited-service eating places and grocery stores made up three of the top six industries with the largest employment (ranked second, fourth and sixth, respectively). The money that's in the food industry is enormous. It's estimated that in 2012, U.S. consumers alone spent nearly $1.8 trillion dollars on food.
I was surprised to learn that only $860.4 billion was spent on tech products in 2012, less than half of that on food. That includes companies such as Apple ( AAPL), Google ( GOOG) and Microsoft ( MSFT), which are considered titans in the U.S. So whether it's the farmer, his equipment or fertilizer; the men and women who ship, distribute and sell the products across the country; the employees in food processing, marketing or technology; the morning shelf stocker, cashier or waitress, one thing is for certain: Food is the real king in the U.S. Should we opt for potatoes, rice and ramen noodles, then our economy could take a real slug to the gut -- both, figuratively and literally. At the time of publication, the author was long SBUX and AAPL. -- Written by Bret Kenwell in Petoskey, Mich. Follow @BretKenwell This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.