More of Minnesota’s small employers are stocking vending machines with nutritious foods, making it easier for working mothers to breast-feed and adopting other measures to promote healthy living, according to a new study on the effectiveness of state workplace wellness grants.

Only 24% of surveyed employers offered healthy food options on-site before receiving support in 2018 from Minnesota’s Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), but 72% did so afterward. The share offering walking meetings, as opposed to conference room gaggles, rose from 8% to 29%.

While employers believe in these programs, they are harder for small and midsize businesses to start without state support, said Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, which has distributed $105 million in SHIP grants since 2014 to local health agencies to fund everything from preschool exercise to farmers markets to workplace wellness.

“Healthy, motivated employees are important to a workplace and to a company’s bottom line,” she said.

SHIP support in 2018 helped 827 workplaces — employing 230 people on average — start or grow wellness programs. The share that promoted exercise commuting with on-site showers or bike racks increased from 39% to 57%. Access to breast-feeding rooms doubled.

Whether such programs actually improved employees’ health, however, was not assessed, and has been a challenge for scientists nationally.

Researchers from Harvard and the University of Chicago tracked the effectiveness of one large retailer’s workplace wellness program — eight training sessions on diet and exercise.

Workers at 20 sites who completed the training exercised more and adopted more weight management practices than workers at other sites that lacked this program. But after 18 months, those who completed the training were no more likely than the comparison group to improve blood pressure, cut health care spending or reduce absenteeism, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Wellness programs are a “work in progress” that need further study, said Jean Abraham, a University of Minnesota researcher who wrote a JAMA editorial accompanying the study.

Tailoring them to workers with existing health problems or risks might boost outcomes, she said. “Targeted approaches that focus on those individuals ... may yield larger health and economic benefits.”