Charities in the grocery sector are taking a more professional and commercially minded approach as they scale up their activities, as Alex Black reports

On Wednesday, thousands of members of the public descended on Trafalgar Square to feast on food that would otherwise have been thrown away, courtesy of a charity initiative to highlight the issue of food waste.

For one key charity involved FareShare it was a chance to show off the distribution and storage capabilities that support its ambitious '10,000 pallet challenge' plan.

In October, FareShare set out its stall to double the amount of food it currently distributes to UK charities every year. It is not the only grocery charity to have raised its game of late. Benevolent fund Caravan broke its annual fundraising record this year, the Retail Trust cashed in on the UK's talent show mania with its high-profile Search for a Star competition and Replenish, a new food waste charity, launched with a view to establishing food banks across the UK.

The heightened activity is a reflection of the increasingly commercial approach being adopted by grocery charities something that has not gone unnoticed in the industry itself.

"In the past couple of years, our relationships with sector charities have gone from being based around handouts to mutual partnerships," says Sainsbury's community affairs manager Andy White. Two years ago, Sainsbury's boss Justin King told suppliers all spare stock should go to FareShare, and the chain has sent about 865 tonnes of food to the charity this year. Sainsbury's also has representatives on Caravan steering groups, and sponsors a Retail Trust retirement bungalow.

King's edict came the year after FareShare remodelled its operations to become a revenue-generating business. Since mid-2006, it has charged manufacturers £40 a tonne to dispose of stock they cannot sell at least £10 a tonne less than it would cost to send it to landfill and has so far generated £140,000 of income from the scheme.

Gerber Juice Company was one of the first suppliers to start working with FareShare when it became an independent charity in 2004. Logistics general manager Alan Armstead says it offers short-dated stock and FareShare now takes about 90% of everything Gerber offers. As the spare 10% is disposed of in an anaerobic digestion plant, the deal has meant Gerber has sent no finished goods waste to landfill in 2009. Nestlé has also used FareShare to drastically reduce its landfill waste. "In 2005 we sent all our food waste to landfill," says supply chain director Chris Tyas. "This year we will send about 5%, with some 225 tonnes of surplus food going to FareShare."

He expects volumes to stay the same as production increases are balanced by greater efficiency.

The waste reduction angle is also being used by Replenish. "We take stock past its 'sell-by' but before its 'use-by' date, redistributing surplus foods to needy people and offering grocery companies a way to address environmental concerns," says spokesman Robin Aitken. "Our pitch to supermarkets is: this is a moral thing to do."

While Caravan can't offer to help companies with waste disposal, it too has moved away from simply asking for donations, and has seen its income rocket as a result. "In the year to April we had raised £2.3m our best 12 months ever and £600,000 a year more than the previous year," says director general Gillian Barker. "That meant we spent £1.8m on welfare our biggest outlay ever."

Caravan encourages retailers and manufacturers to run in-store fundraising drives and supply people for its committees. It also started the Caravan Achievement Awards in 2007. Ninety four awards were given out in 2007 and 114 this year. "Before we introduced the awards, the only recognition people got for supporting us was a letter," says Barker. "The awards show companies what they can do for us and raise awareness of our work."

Going into 2010, that work is set to be more important than ever.